Immense Meteorite

Mrs. Somerville mentions a Meteorite which passed within twenty-five miles of our planet, and was estimated to weigh 600,000 tons, and to move with a velocity of twenty miles in a second. Only a small fragment of this immense mass reached the earth. Four instances are recorded of persons being killed by their fall. A block of stone fell at Ægos Potamos, B.C. 465, as large as two millstones; another at Narni, in 921, projected like a rock four feet above the surface of the river, in which it was seen to fall. The Emperor Jehangire had a sword forged from a mass of meteoric iron, which fell in 1620 at Jahlinder in the Punjab. Sixteen instances of the fall of stones in the British Isles are well authenticated to have occurred since 1620, one of them in London. It is very remarkable that no new chemical element has been detected in any of the numerous meteorites which have been analysed.

Meteorites From the Moon

The hypothesis of the selenic origin of meteoric stones depends upon a number of conditions, the accidental coincidence of which could alone convert a possible to an actual fact. The view of the original existence of small planetary masses in space is simpler, and at the same time more analogous with those entertained concerning the formation of other portions of the solar system.

Diogenes Laertius thought aerolites came from the sun; but Pliny derides this theory. The fall of aerolites in bright sunshine, and when the moon's disc was invisible, probably led to the idea of sun-stones. Moreover Anaxagoras regarded the sun as “a molten fiery mass;” and Euripides, in Phaëton, terms the sun “a golden mass,” that is to say, a fire-coloured, brightly-shining matter, but not leading to the inference that aerolites are golden sun-stones. The Greek philosophers had four hypotheses as to their origin: telluric, from ascending exhalations; masses of stone raised by hurricanes; a solar origin; and lastly, an origin in the regions of space, as heavenly bodies which had long remained invisible: the last opinion entirely according with that of the present day.

Chladni states that an Italian physicist, Paolo Maria Terzago, on the occasion of the fall of an aerolite at Milan, in 1660, by which a Franciscan monk was killed, was the first who surmised that aerolites were of selenic origin. Without any previous knowledge of this conjecture, Olbers was led, in 1795 (after the celebrated fall at Siena, June 16th, 1794), to investigate the amount of the initial tangential force that would be required to bring to the earth masses projected from the moon. Olbers, Brandes, and Chaldni thought that “the velocity of 16 to 32 miles, with which fire-balls and shooting-stars entered our atmosphere,” furnished a refutation to the view of their selenic origin. According to Olbers, it would require to reach the earth, setting aside the resistance of the air, an initial velocity of 8292 feet in the second; according to Laplace, 7862; to Biot, 8282; and to Poisson, 7595. Laplace states that this velocity is only five or six times as great as that of a cannon-ball; but Olbers has shown that “with such an initial velocity as 7500 or 8000 feet in a second, meteoric stones would arrive at the surface of our earth with a velocity of only 35,000 feet.” But the measured velocity of meteoric stones averages upwards of 114,000 feet to a second; consequently the original velocity of projection from the moon must be almost 110,000 feet, and therefore 14 times greater than Laplace asserted. It must, however, be recollected, that the opinion then so prevalent, of the existence of active volcanoes in the moon, where air and water are absent, has since been abandoned.

Laplace elsewhere states, that in all probability aerolites “come from the depths of space;” yet he in another passage inclines to the hypothesis of their lunar origin, always, however, assuming that the stones projected from the moon “become satellites of our earth, describing around it more or less eccentric orbits, and thus not reaching its atmosphere until several or even many revolutions have been accomplished.”

In Syria there is a popular belief that aerolites chiefly fall on clear moonlight nights. The ancients (Pliny tells us) looked for their fall during lunar eclipses.—Abridged from Humboldt's Cosmos, vol. i. (Bohn's edition).

Dr. Laurence Smith, U.S., accepts the “lunar theory,” and considers meteorites to be masses thrown off from the moon, the attractive power of which is but one-sixth that of the earth; so that bodies thrown from the surface of the moon experience but one sixth the retarding force they would have when thrown from the earth's surface.

Look again (says Dr. Smith) at the constitution of the meteorite, made up principally of pure  iron. It came evidently from some place where there is little or no oxygen. Now the moon has no atmosphere, and no water on its surface. There is no oxygen there. Hurled from the moon, these bodies,—these masses of almost pure iron,—would flame in the sun like polished steel, and on reaching our atmosphere would burn in its oxygen until a black oxide cooled it; and this we find to be the case with all meteorites,—the black colour is only an external covering.

Sir Humphry Davy, from facts contained in his researches on flame, in 1817, conceives that the light of meteors depends, not upon the ignition of inflammable gases, but upon that of solid bodies; that such is their velocity of motion, as to excite sufficient heat for their ignition by the compression even of rare air; and that the phenomena of falling stars may be explained by regarding them as small incombustible bodies moving round the earth in very eccentric orbits, and becoming ignited only when they pass with immense rapidity through the upper regions of the atmosphere; whilst those meteors which throw down stony bodies are, similarly circumstanced, combustible masses.

Masses of iron and nickel, having all the appearance of aerolites or meteoric stones, have been discovered in Siberia, at a depth of ten metres below the surface of the earth. From the fact, however, that no meteoric stones are found in the secondary and tertiary formations, it would seem to follow that the phenomena of falling stones did not take place till the earth assumed its present conditions.