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Kansas meteorite expert is getting calls after blast in Russia

Updated: 2013-02-16T05:02:16Z

By ROY WENZL

The Wichita Eagle

— After a meteor streaked across the Russian sky on Friday, shattering windows and injuring more than 1,000, Don Stimpson started getting calls at his Kansas Meteorite Museum, which sits, as he says, in the middle of nowhere in rural Kansas.

The meteorite over Russia exploded with the force of an atomic bomb in the sky over the Ural mountains. Most of the injured were hit by glass shattered by the sonic boom. About 3,000 buildings were damaged.

Scientists estimated the meteorite weighed about 10,000 pounds, which happens to be the same size of a meteorite that struck Kansas about 40,000 years ago near Haviland, most of which Stimpson owns and cares for at his museum.

The meteorite in Russia scared people so badly that some said the world was coming to an end. Others less trusting said the Americans were testing new weapons.

Being scared of meteorites is not a loony thing, said Stimpson. Having studied the Kansas debris, he’s concerned himself.

“I don’t know if anyone really listens to me,” he said. “But NASA should be spending a lot more time trying to find these things before they hit the Earth.”

Stimpson and his wife, Sheila run their museum in a building accessible by dirt roads outside Haviland in Kiowa County. They own the “meteorite farm” where most of the debris has been found.

To keep their operation going, they sometimes sell gram-sized bits of the meteor for $2 on eBay.

They’ve’ learned a lot about the business of selling bits of the universe. Their type of meteor fragments, being plentiful, sell cheap at $2 a gram. But meteors also hit the moon, and Mars, and bits of debris sometimes fall to Earth. Scientifically identifiable bits of the moon and Mars can sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

The Stimpsons’ celestial treasure is thousands of pieces of rock and metal – olivine stone, iron and nickel – fragments of the meteorite that slammed into Kiowa County at about 20,000 miles per hour.

That speed is slow by meteorite standards, Stimpson said. The Russian rock hit the Earth’s atmosphere going about 33,000 miles per hour. Some can come in at 80,000 miles per hour, Stimpson said.

The size of some of these things, coupled with the speed, can cause mass destruction if it hits a city, or even if it explodes in the atmosphere.

In 1908, a large chunk of space debris, either a comet or a meteorite, exploded over lightly populated Tunguska, in Siberia, with the force of a 10-megaton bomb. It is believed to have knocked down 80 million trees. Scientists say a blast like that over a densely populated city could cause terrible loss of life.

Stimpson was glad to take the calls about what happened in Russia, not only to talk about his museum but to recite “my little stump speech” concerning meteorite safety.

“NASA has this obsession about finding life on Mars,” he said Friday. “NASA should be spending more time looking for these meteors and working to preventing them from hitting us.”

What’s needed, he said, is away “to detect this stuff within a few weeks and get into space quickly to try to deflect it.”

There were no humans in Kansas 40,000 years ago, he said. But should another meteorite that size hit a populated area, “anywhere from 10 to 20 city blocks would be damaged. There would be considerable loss of property and life.”

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