Last Friday morning, a meteor weighing about 10,000 tons fell from the skies and exploded over the Chelyabinsk region of Russia.
It was a dramatic event. According to NASA, the meteor had the intensity of 30 Hiroshima bombs as it entered the Earth’s atmosphere. When it shattered 18 to 32 miles above the ground it released several kilotons of energy above the Ural mountains.
Sonic booms from the blast were so intense they shattered countless windows in buildings, injuring approximately 1,000 people. Tiny fragments of the meteor were found in a nearby lake, while damages to buildings are estimated at $33 million.
Compared to the Russian meteorite, the circumstances surrounding the Weston meteorite of 1807 aren’t nearly as dramatic — at first blush anyway. But in the end, the two events have one very few striking similarity.
The “Weston Fall” happened 205 years ago and is an important part of history because it was the first recorded meteorite strike in America.
The event was documented by Yale professors Benjamin Silliman and James L. Kingsley in volume XV of the Memoirs of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, written in 1810. Their report was based on eyewitness accounts.
According to their findings, on Dec. 14, 1807, a massive red fireball was spotted in the sky around 6:30 a.m., in Rutland, Vt. Within about 30 seconds, it had streaked across Massachusetts.
What would later be proven to be a meteor, fell predominantly over Weston, which is why it was called the “Weston meteorite.” At the time, Weston encompassed the town of Easton. Ironically, most of the fragments from the meteorite were found in Easton and other nearby towns. None were actually found in what is Weston today.
The professors interviewed Nathan Wheeler, an attorney who lived on property across the street from the Easton Post Office. Mr. Wheeler reported seeing a “globe of fire” in the sky that morning, about “one half or two thirds” the diameter of the moon. He reported hearing three loud explosions followed by noise that sounded like a “cannonball rolling over the floor.” The noise was heard as far as 40 miles away.
Stones were reported to have fallen from the sky following the explosions, and six impact sites were reported for the meteorite. The majority of stones were found in the Easton part of Weston. Other sites included Trumbull and Fairfield.
One Weston/Easton resident, a “Mr. Prince,” reportedly found a 35-pound stone fragment from the meteorite in his yard. He and others immediately broke it into tiny pieces with hammers hoping to find it full of silver and gold.
The professors spoke with regret about the actions of the townspeople. “From the descriptions we have heard, it must have been a noble specimen, and men of science will not cease to regret, that so rare a treasure should have been sacrificed to the dreams of avarice, and the violence of ignorant and impatient curiosity.”
An estimated 350 pounds of the meteorite fell to the ground during the Weston Fall, including one that weighed 200 pounds before it was broken. A 30-pound fragment of the meteor was saved and now resides in the Peabody Museum at Yale University.
At the time of the Weston Fall, there was public disagreement about whether stones could indeed “fall from the sky.” After doing a chemical analysis of the stone fragments, the professors established two facts: “1. These bodies did not originate from the Earth. 2. They have all come from a common source, but that source is unknown.”
The efforts by the Yale professors marked the beginning of meteorite science in the United States, and their work proved that meteorites came from outer space.
With modern technology advancements, the world did not have to wait long to learn about the Russian meteorite. The meteor’s bright glow and smoky trail across the bright blue sky was caught in all its splendor on hundreds of videos, many shot from dashboard cameras in Russian cars.
At its peak, the Russian meteor was brighter than the sun, and its trail was visible for about 30 seconds. That description matches the same reports about the Weston meteor.
But the most striking similarity between the Weston and Russian meteorites has nothing to do with the meteors themselves.
Just as Americans in 1807 thought they would find silver and gold in “them thar stones,” by smashing them to bits with hammers, the Russians too smell money.
Published reports say a “Gold Rush” has started in Chelyabinsk with people hunting high and low to find fragments of space rock which they can potentially sell for thousands of dollars.
“School children and villagers are raking through snow and ice collecting bags full of stones,” reported Andrew E. Kramer in the New York Times.
Anyone lucky enough to find pieces of the meteorite, probably won’t crack them with a hammer this time.
Laura Modlin, Hersam Acorn Newspapers correspondent, contributed to this story.