A cosmic missile blazed above the Sikhote-Alin Mountains of Siberia 75 years ago today. It exploded three and a half miles above the ground, raining tons of iron shrapnel across a forest. The event was seen and heard up to 200 miles away.
The “missile” was a small asteroid — probably a chip off a larger object in the asteroid belt. It weighed a hundred tons or more when it hit the atmosphere. Much of its outer layers burned away as it streaked through the sky at tens of thousands of miles per hour. What was left exploded, showering debris across half a square mile.
It took months for scientists to reach the remote impact site. They recorded more than a hundred craters. The largest was 85 feet across and 20 feet deep. And they gathered about 25 tons of meteorites — more debris than from any other single meteor in history. The meteorites are made almost entirely of iron, with a little bit of nickel and a tiny smattering of other elements.
Today, some of the Sikhote-Alin meteorites are in museums in Russia, the U.K., and the United States. Small pieces are in private hands, where they’re sometimes sold. Dealers offer samples that weigh a few grams for a hundred dollars or so. Larger bits fetch larger prices. In 2016, for example, Christie’s auction house sold a half-pound sample for about $7,000. And Sotheby’s sold a five pounder for 10 thousand — valuable pieces of a cosmic missile.
Script by Damond Benningfield