Meteorite Mayhem Part II: Maybe Missile Mayhem?

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Sept. 20 2007 11:34 AM

Meteorite Mayhem Part II: Maybe Missile Mayhem?

OK, got it? I said it didn't sound like a meteorite; in fact, the impacts reported in the vast majority of news stories have more mundane explanations.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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But this one, maybe, has an even weirder explanation! In the newsgroup sci.space.history is a thread discussing this Peruvian event. One of the participants, Pat Flannery, has come up with a very interesting suggestion: this was no space rock, it was a Scud missile gone awry.

Look at the evidence: the crater doesn't look like a hypersonic impact crater. The shape is wrong, the size is wrong. There has never, not once, in the history of mankind been a meteorite impact that caused people to become ill. No meteorite has yet been found in the crater, despite the incredibly high value of such an object. Circumstantially, too, most impacts are not caused by meteorites.

Now chew on this: in the late 1990s, Peru is rumored to have obtained several Scud missiles [emphasis mine]:

More than 700 `Scud' launchers were deployed by the former Warsaw Pact nations, each launcher carried one missile and had three reloads available...but it is believed that the SS-1 `Scud' missiles have been withdrawn from service in Russia and destroyed ... `Scud B' missiles have been exported to Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Egypt, Georgia, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Libya, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Syria, UAE, Ukraine, Vietnam and Yemen. Unconfirmed reports in 1995 and 1996 have suggested that `Scud B' missiles may have been purchased by Armenia, Ecuador, Pakistan, Peru and Democratic Republic of the Congo...

OK, so let's say Peru has Scuds. So what?

Ah, the fuel used by Scud missiles is called Inhibited Red Fuming Nitric Acid. This is a toxic brew that can cause nausea and skin irritation, the same symptoms reported to have been seen in the people in Peru near the crater. A missile impact would also explain the witnessed fireball and the impact crater! Fuel leaks are not uncommon in missile impacts, especially if something went wrong with the missile (and with Scuds, that's very common).

As usual, when we get news reports about meteorite impacts in remote areas, all sorts of contradictory information is reported. We'll see how this goes, but I'll just bet that investigators will find debris from a missile around the impact site. But if that's true, chances are the reports will get suppressed, since I sincerely doubt the Peruvian government will want the news leaked that a) they have Scud missiles, and b) they screwed up and dropped one on their own people.

As bad as this is, I hope it doesn't turn into a Peruvian Roswell.

Anyway, my thanks to Jim Oberg for turning my attention to the sci.space.history discussion, and to Allen Thomson as well for his help!

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