Astronomy Teacher Makes Much Ado about Meteors

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Byline: Beth Wilson Daily Herald Staff Writer

Paul Sipiera admits that the title "Death From the Skies" might be a bit much.

But when you're talking about colliding asteroids, falling meteorites and approaching comets, anything is possible. True, getting hit and killed by a haphazard meteorite is possible; it's also unlikely. The same is true for asteroids. It's possible that a massive clod of rock and metal could crash into the Earth and alter life as we know it. But that too is unlikely.

According to recorded history, only one human, an Alabama woman in 1953, has been hit by a meteorite, Sipiera said. No one has been killed by a meteorite, except an unfortunate Egyptian dog in 1917.

You've got a much better chance of being killed by lightning (one in 600,000) than by a meteorite. So what's with the dramatic title of Sipiera's upcoming presentation on meteors at the Lizzadro Museum in Elmhurst?

"The idea is that you can go to bed at night and not realize that the whole planet could be wiped out just like that," he said, referring to what would happen if a large comet or asteroid hit Earth. "There wouldn't be any warning at all. It could be that sudden."

"It's guaranteed it will happen in time," Sipiera continued, "but it could be millions of years apart."

In the last six years, there have been four fairly large asteroids (ranging from 100 feet to one-half mile in diameter) veering awfully close to Earth, he said. The closest came within 100,000 miles. "That is an incredibly close miss," he said. "For instance, had it hit in Omaha, Neb., it could have wiped out most of North America or at least the United States."

And we, unassuming earthlings, didn't know what was coming. "We discovered it went by us two days after it went by us," he said. "We didn't know we were in potential danger."

Less than a dozen asteroids pass through the Earth's orbit each year, he said. In contrast, about 10,000 tons of meteorites, ranging from dust to the size of a kitchen table, hit our planet each year, said Sipiera who lives in Algonquin and teaches geology and astronomy at Harper Community College in Palatine.

Meteorite spottings increase each year, but not necessarily because the number of meteorites is growing. "We're becoming more aware of it as science gets better," Sipiera said.

In 1994, a Michigan man said a fist-sized meteorite fell through the wall of his house into his kitchen. In 1991, a group of Indiana boys playing in a back yard claimed a plum-sized meteorite whizzed past their heads and embedded itself in the ground.

Meteorites, which are called meteoroids between the Earth and moon; meteors when they're passing through the Earth's atmosphere and meteorites once they hit Earth, are small chunks of asteroids. Asteroids are large conglomerates of rock and metal that should have been planets. …