Was the Tunguska Fireball a Comet Chemical Bomb?

Over a century ago, on June 30th, 1908 a huge explosion detonated over an unpopulated region of Russia called Tunguska.

It is probably one of the most enduring mysteries of this planet. What could cause such a huge explosion in the atmosphere, with the energy of a thousand Hiroshima atomic bombs, flattening a forest the area of Luxembourg and yet leaving no crater? It is little wonder that the Tunguska event has become great material for science fiction writers; how could such a huge blast, that shook the Earth’s magnetic field and lit up the Northern Hemisphere skies for three days leave no crater and just a bunch of flattened, scorched trees?

Although there are many theories as to how the Tunguska event may have unfolded, scientists are still divided over what kind of object could have hit the Earth from space. Now a Russian scientist believes he has uncovered the best answer yet. The Earth was glanced by a large comet, that skipped off the upper atmosphere, dropping a chunk of comet material as it did so. As the comet chunk heated up as it dropped through the atmosphere, the material, packed with volatile chemicals, exploded as the biggest chemical explosion mankind had ever seen…

12,000 years ago, a large object smashed into North America, causing global destruction. Dust and ash was released into the atmosphere, triggering global cooling and possibly causing the extinction of a number of large mammals around this time. The Tunguska event was of a similar energy to that catastrophic impact, but fortunately for us, Tunguska had a benign effect on the world. It simply exploded high in the atmosphere, flattened a region of Russia and vaporized.

“Significantly, the energy of the chemical explosion is substantially lower than the kinetic energy of the body,” says Edward Drobyshevski of the RussianAcademy of Sciences in St Petersburg, who has published his research into the Tunguska event. The fact that the Tunguska explosion energy is lower than what is expected of the kinetic energy of an object that hit the Earth from space is key to his work. Drobyshevski therefore concludes that the event must have been caused not by an asteroid or whole comet, it was actually caused by a fragment of comet material that fell off as the main cometary body skipped off the Earth’s upper atmosphere. This means that the Earth was hit on a tangent and the fragment dropped comparatively slowly toward the surface.

Sounds reasonable so far, but how did the fragment explode? Using our new understanding as to what chemicals comets contain, Drobyshevski surmises the fragment was rich in hydrogen peroxide. This is where the magic happened. The explosion was not due to a rapid release of kinetic energy, it was in fact a hydrogen peroxide bomb. As the fragment descended, it heated up. As the reactive chemicals in the material got hot, they explosively disassociated to form oxygen and water, ripping the fragment apart. The Tunguska event was therefore a huge chemical bomb and not a “regular” comet-hits-Earth impact.

An interesting study. Not content with dropping asteroids on our planet, the Universe has started throwing hydrogen peroxide explosives at us too. Whatever next?

Ian O’Neill

Posted in News

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