The weight of being the first ever space object to be officially blamed for a human death rests on a roughly 10-gm “dark bluish” stone lying “in the custody of a Tamil Nadu police inspector”.
A day after Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa said it was a meteorite that had caused the Vellore blast killing one and injuring two, officials were trying hard to explain how they had come to the conclusion.
Vellore SP P K Senthil Kumari said they were waiting for scientists from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIAP), Bengaluru, to confirm the theory after analysing samples. Supposed to come on Monday, they are now expected only Tuesday. The IIAP incidentally has an observatory, the Vainu Bappu Observatory, less than 50 km from the spot, in Kavalur. The stone itself was recovered around 40 metres from the 3- to 4-ft deep crater left behind by the explosion on Bharathidasan Engineering College campus in Natrampalli near Vellore, police said.
Samples collected from the deceased and the two injured are also being analysed, and have been sent to a forensic laboratory in Chennai.
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The SP said their conclusion that it was a meteorite, without any scientific evidence regarding the same so far, was “easily made”. They had ruled out a terror strike or rocket attack as no explosive substance had been found at the spot, Kumari said.
Another reason behind Jayalalithaa’s statement was the observation of a scientist. “An expert from Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, who was already here probing another incident of January 26, also said it could be a meteorite seeing the piece of stone,” the police officer said.
The scientist, A K Balamurugan, did not give a report in writing though, and on Monday, he refused to comment on the matter. Approached by The Indian Express, he said he was busy preparing a paper for an ISRO conference.
However, he confirmed collecting samples from Bethaveppampattu village nearby, where a 3-ft crater was left by an object in a paddy field on January 26.
PRL Director Utpal Sarkar refused to confirm if Balamurugan or the others with him had been sent by the centre, or to comment on the matter himself, directing all the queries to former director J N Goswami. Goswami, who is still associated with PRL and is an expert on palnetary explorations and geosciences, blamed police for “causing some confusion with differing versions”. “We don’t know if fragments are available for analysis. From pictures I saw in the news there is something burnt in the ground. There is no sufficient information from the field to conclude anything at present.”
While IIAP officials too refused to comment without analysing samples, an official at the Vainu Bappu Observatory said, “There is no confirmation of a meteorite being involved. The probability is low.”
Another official at the Kavalur centre said, “The observatory cannot see these fast-moving objects.”
Adding that “there is no need for people to panic”, the official said, “This is possibly a very rare incident if it was a meteorite.”
V Adimurthy, a senior space scientist at ISRO and an expert on space debris, said only a chemical analysis could help ascertain the truth.
“It may be possible that isolated, separate and discreet materials enter the Earth orbit. But we could not conclude it unless there is a chemical analysis report. The postmortem report of the victim might also help ascertain the nature of the object that exploded,” he said.
According to Sameer Dhurde, a science educator and astronomer at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, remnants of the objects found at the site need to be studied. “It is not improbable for such a thing to occur, despite fatal incidents having a low probability. Most of the meteor will disintegrate in the atmosphere.”
The incident is not likely to be linked to a meteor shower, associate professor at IIAP Dipankar Banerjee said. “I am not an expert on this since this falls in the realm of amateur astronomy. I can say that it is unlikely to be related to a meteor shower.”
Asked if meteorites could kill, Goswami said, “You can never tell. If your are sitting at a wrong place, at a wrong time, these objects travelling at huge velocity can definitely cause harm.”
Bharathidasan college remained closed on Monday. Principal G Baskar remembers he was sitting in his glass-wall chamber when there was a huge explosion Saturday noon. The spot lies right in front, barely 100 metres away. “I didn’t see anything before the sound,” he says. “There was a huge noise that broke dozens of glass panels, including many in my office. There was no fire or fumes, only a cloud of dust at the spot.”
R Sivakumar, a trustee of the college, was just 400 metres away from the campus gate at the time. “For a moment, I thought my car was skidding off with a flat tyre. In two minutes, I was at the campus and saw this heavy dust and the body of Kamaraj. People were frantic, running here and there.”
Sivakumar says the students, who would have streamed out just three minutes later for their lunch break, had a lucky escape.
B Mutharasan, who was at a shop opposite the college, saw a line of smoke going into the sky but no flying object going in.
Vishnu, an employee at the campus, said the noise left them all shaken. “People heard it from 4-5 km away. We thought someone had dropped a bomb on the campus,” he said.
Sivakumar said Kamaraj had succumbed to injuries caused from pieces of a plastic water tank that split when the mystery object fell next to it. A senior police officer confirmed doctors had recovered a piece of stone that had pierced through his left neck, perhaps causing his death. “They told us that the stone looks different. We would be sending that too for forensic analysis,” the officer said.
“The two injured received maximum harm in their eyes. One had to undergo surgery to remove sand and stone pieces from both his eyes,” the officer said.
Bethaveppampattu village, about 25 km from Natrampalli, meanwhile, remains clueless about its own January 26 crater. The picturesque village on the foothills of the Yelagiri hills reported no casualty when the object hit a paddy field behind the house of Mangai, 49, a farmer.
There was a huge splash and mud from the field landed all over her house walls, up to the top of a huge banana tree nearby. She says her scared cattle ran away, snapping the ropes with which they were tied.
“We were shaken by the noise but there was no fire. Smoke was coming from the pit for almost half an hour,” Mangai says, adding that they had informed officials, after which police came.
College principal Bhaskar says that before police first announced there had been a meteorite strike, all kinds of theories were doing the rounds. “There is a private aeronautical institute nearby, Army establishments here, the mountain bordering Andhra Pradesh is just opposite the college. We speculated possibilities of a failed rocket or a bomb mistakenly dropped by the Army or even an attack by the Maoists from the mountains.”