Our planet is undergoing a brief cosmic bombardment today -- the Quadrantid meteor shower. Bits of dust are raining into the upper atmosphere as we fly through the orbital path of a comet. Most of the grains of comet dust are no bigger than BBs, so they vaporize as streaks of light high in the sky.
Every once in a while, though, a bigger chunk of cosmic debris rains into the atmosphere. It forms a much brighter streak of light -- and some of it may survive its fiery plunge to hit the ground.
That's just what happened 40 years ago tonight. A brilliant fireball streaked across northeastern Oklahoma. It was as bright as the full Moon, and thousands of people saw it and heard its sonic booms.
More important for science, the meteor was recorded by the Prairie Meteorite Network -- a set of cameras in seven states. From the network's pictures, scientists were able to trace the meteor's path -- both toward the ground, and back out into space.
They determined that it probably came from the asteroid belt -- a broad ring of debris between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. They also determined that if anything survived the entry into the atmosphere, it probably landed near the small town of Lost City.
Six days later, a project scientist found a 22-pound fragment of the meteorite sitting atop a snow-covered road outside town. Searchers found several more chunks over the following days: rare scientific treasures from beyond Earth.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009
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