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Poisk Newspaper, November 5, 2002, No. 44 (334)
Galina Kiseleva
Sensations of Our Times


Scientists have found traces of a meteorite in the taiga and named it Vitimsky

On the night of September 24-25, in the north of Irkutsk Oblast, local residents saw a brightly glowing space object draw a line across the sky and fall into the taiga. The mayor of Mamsko-Chuysky raion immediately sent a message about the event to the government of Irkutsk Oblast. But scientists learned of the heavenly visitor only on October 3, when a fax arrived at the Institute of Sun And Earth Physics from Bodaibo. Residents of this town asked the scientists to explain what had happened and why the sky was glowing above the place where the unknown object fell? As it later turned out, the glow was just the Northern Lights, which had been seen there before. The meteorite flew past by coincidence as the Northern Lights were shining, and thanks to this coincidence many people became aware of the falling of the object from space.

The scientists, of course, got very interested in all this. They began talking of an expedition and verifying the information through their own sources. It turned out that an American satellite had detected a large meteor in the area in infrared and visible light. Its track was determined but 30 kilometers above the surface of the Earth the object was lost. Then a powerful explosion occurred, and according to secondary data the Americans estimated its power as equivalent to 0.2 kilotons of explosives. An expedition was planned with its route based on the satellite information. The expedition was led by Sergei Yazev, the well-known astrophysicist and director of the Irkutsk State University Astronomical Observatory. The first scouting expedition worked in Mamsko-Chuysky raion on October 22-27. It was jointly organized by the Institute of Sun-Earth Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Irkutsk State University. The Institute of Geochemistry and the Institute of The Earth's Crust contributed equipment. The scientific program was developed by Viktor Grigoriev, deputy director of the Institute of Sun-Earth Physics and a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Mikhail Nazarov, the deputy director of the Academy of Sciences Meteorite Committee.

(Photo: Dmitry Plenkin, Itogi Journal)

The six-person expedition included four journalists. The expedition returned on October 29 and its members reported what they had found. As Sergei Yazev described it:

The first thing we did was to interview residents of villages located along the meteor's flight path. Eyewitnesses from the village of Mama gave us interesting information. We have to start by saying that there were not many eyewitnesses because the event happened at night, at 1:50 AM. Even though the sky was completely clouded over and it was drizzling, the meteor was so bright that according to local fishermen, 'It was a bright white light like a welding torch, and it hurt to look at it.' Four highschoolers who were spending the night in a cabin on a mountain said that the light changed from white to red and blue and the earth gave such a shudder that they were 'nearly thrown out of bed, and plates fell on the floor.' From the interviews it emerged that the shockwave had arrived after 11.5 minutes.

The residents of the village spoke of the strong effects of what apparently was the meteor's electromagnetic field. Many witnesses noted the light and heard a rushing sound. Apparently the electromagnetic field, propagating at the speed of light, not the speed of sound, creates these secondary acoustic effects. Thus it was clearly a meteor with electric effects. 'Even lightbulbs began to glow dimly, even though the electricity in the village was out at the time,' residents said. The women on duty at the airport 'Almost died of fear,' when strange lights began glowing on the pillars around the weather station. Apparently these effects were caused by an alternating electric field.

The folks on duty at the electric substation in Muscovit village said that for about a minute they saw a hemispherical white glow above the mountains, which filled the entire sky, and then a glowing object descended beyond Vitim, after which an explosion was heard. According to explosives experts, its power was colossal.

Unfortunately, seismologists couldn't say anything definite about vibrations of the earth during the explosion. The needle of the Bodaibo seismograph station registered two jolts which possibly suggest a distant explosion but the equipment alas was out of order (thanks to budget cuts) and nothing was recorded.

To learn what actually happened, we needed to reach the place where the meteor fell. In Vitim there was already a snowstorm but the local residents helped us travel out there. We travelled on motorboats, dodging chunks of ice and risking smashed propellers. We rested in the abandoned village of Bolshoi Severny and headed out along the Bolshoi Severny river. It took an immense effort to reach the place calculated from the satellite data. Alas, the scientists were disappointed with what they found. Apparently the epicenter of the explosion had been calculated incorrectly. Looking carefully all around they found a few traces of the fall of the unknown object. Several pine trees had their tops broken at a height of about seven meters and the tops had all fallen to the north. It became clear that this was not the result of the shockwave. Most likely the trees had been hit by small fragments of the meteor.

(Photo: Dmitry Plenkin, Itogi Journal)

Later it was learned that hunters from Muscovit village had seen broken and fallen trees in a completely different place. There were many fallen trees and they had fallen in a different direction. This means it may be possible to outline the area of the meteorite fall. But the details will need to be learned by a new expedition. It is extremely difficult to travel through the taiga at this time of year, and snow has covered much of the evidence.

"We got the impression that it is worth searching the Vitim taiga," said Sergei Yazev in conclusion. It may be, as deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Meteorite Committee suggested, that a large fragment of the bolide could have travelled up to 40 km farther. A new, longer and better-equipped expedition will be needed to determine this.

Meanwhile, we agreed with the Mamsko-Chuysky district government that together we will gather evidence from local residents, who occasionally spend time in the farthest corners of the taiga on their travels.

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