On Saturday, a luckless bus driver died in a mysterious explosion in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. His death took on added significance when local officials declared that the man was killed by a meteorite.
The Indian Institute of Astrophysics is working to confirm that claim. But if true, it marks the first confirmed death-by-meteorite. That’s rather shocking. Over the long and violent history of our species, has no one else been killed by a falling space rock?
It’s really tough to say. As the sparse historic record suggests, the lifetime odds of being killed by a meteorite are incredibly small: about one in 700,000, according to calculations by astronomer Alan Harris. You’re much more likely to drown, to die in an aeroplane crash, to get flattened by a tornado or to be offed by a fellow human than you are to have your life snuffed out by an extraterrestrial impactor.
Still, a report by the National Resource Council estimates that there should be approximately 91 meteorite-related fatalities every year. Perhaps many meteoric deaths have simply gone unreported — a possibility supported by the fact that historic records are very sparse before the 19th century.
But based on records compiled by Harvard’s International Comet Quarterly, it’s clear there have been close calls over the past 200 years. These include a — later disputed — report of an Indian man getting killed by a meteorite in 1825, another case of an Indian man getting struck in the arm by a space rock in 1827 and many instances of meteorites smashing through people’s roofs or hitting their cars. A (possibly apocryphal) report declares that a meteorite struck a house in China in 1907, causing it to collapse and killing the family inside. In 1915, another report claims that a meteorite tore off a Chinese woman’s arm.
With animals, we have a few solid reports of death-by-meteorite, including a horse that was struck and killed in New Concord, Ohio, in 1860 and a dog that had the misfortune of getting walloped during a meteorite shower over Nakhla, Egypt, in 1911.
In a few instances, meteorites have threatened to cause much more destruction. Just three years back, a space rock hurled into Earth’s atmosphere and exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, producing a tremendous shockwave that damaged thousands of buildings and injured over a thousand people. The event garnered international attention, but astonishingly, not a single person was killed. And Chelyabinsk was peanuts compared with the asteroid or comet that exploded over Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908, flattening a 16 square kilometre region of forest. Scientists have since estimated that the Tunguska blast released the energy equivalent of 185 Hiroshima bombs. Had it occurred over New York City, it could have ended three million lives.
Incidents like Chelyabinsk and Tunguska are rare, but they serve to remind us that death from above is never more than one statistically unlikely orbital trajectory away from us.
As for the recent case in India? I contacted Harris — the guy who calculated the odds of being killed by a meteorite — and he’s sceptical. “The odds of someone, somewhere, sometime in history, having been killed by a meteorite or bolide explosion is not out of the question,” he told Gizmodo in an email. “But keep claims in perspective: every year about 100 million deaths occur, many of them under obscure or shadowy circumstances. What are the odds of one such death being claimed as due to a meteorite rather than some other cause that someone would like to conceal?”
While we wait for the Indian authorities to confirm or deny the report, I’ll leave you with one final morbid tidbit to chew on. Harris’ calculations show that while a massive, Armageddon-style meteorite impact is much less likely than a small impact, the chances of being killed by the former and the latter are about equal.
So, while there may be no confirmed deaths-by-meteorite yet, odds are about 50-50 that if you get struck and killed by a meteorite, 7 billion other people are going out with you.