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Rocks from Outer Space!

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Already hundred of years before a fireball scared Nevada, another strange rock made the news of the day.  It was almost midday of November 7, 1492 when a “gruesome thunderbolt and long lasting roar” was heard coming from the sky and a rock impacted on a field, producing a crater “half a man length” deep.
Soon curious onlookers gathered around the hole and with the help of some strong men the rock from the sky was lifted on a cart and transported to the nearby Austrian city of Ensisheim.

The Austrian emperor Maximilian I., accidentally in the town for political reasons, ordered that the mysterious rock was to be exposed in the local church. This seemed necessary, rocks falling from the sky were believed to be dangerous premonitory signs of war, plague and famine – only by putting the rock in chains on holy ground their evil influence could be neutralized.

The shooting star became soon known as the “thunderstone of Ensisheim” and scholars speculated about the significance of the strange rock.
In a first pamphlet the Swiss humanist Johann Bergmann von Olpe remembered of various signs in the sky and wonders observed in the last years, more remarkable than everything that could be read in books, but this rock was by far the greatest of all miracles. He continues to tell the extraordinary effects of the phenomena; The thunderbolt produced by the rock alone was heard all over Europe, or at least until the nearby Swiss.
Bergmann is sure that the stone is a sign for misfortune for all the enemies of emperor Maximilian, god himself send it to declare his support for a war against France!

Fig.1. The impact as depicted in the “Schweizer Bilderchronik des Luzerners” by Diebold Schilling in 1512.

The thunderstone of Ensisheim is today the oldest known recorded (and still preserved) meteorite in Europe.

For centuries this and other thunderstone(s) will be discussed and mentioned in various chronicles and reports, but the origin of these rocks remains mysterious until the 18th century.
Two main explanations will then prevail – meteorites are solidified air or vapour and so phenomena of the atmosphere; or, according to other scholars, products of earth associated somehow to volcanoes. An extraterrestrial origin was considered impossible because the space between the planets was considered free of matter, idea supported and promoted by the English astronomer Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

An important contribution to solve the riddle comes from the German physician and lawyer Ernst Friedrich Chladni (1756-1827). Chladni collected many eyewitness reports and petrologic and chemical analyses and in 1794 publish his work entitled “Über den Ursprung der von Pallas gefundenen und anderer ihr ähnlicher Eisenmassen, und über einige damit in Verbindung stehende Naturerscheinungen” (About the origin of the by Pallas discovered and other similar masses of iron and their connected natural apparitions). He is the first to publish and carefully document the hypothesis that meteorites are not rocks from or formed on earth, but remnants of the formation of the solar system; coming to earth from the interplanetary space.

Bibliography:

BÜHLER, R.W. (1992): Meteorite – Urmaterie aus dem interplanetaren Raum. Weltbild Verlag:, Augsburg: 192

Online Resources:

GROSSMAN, M. (2010-2011): Meteorite Manuscripts. (Accessed 29.03.2011)

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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