The Tunguska event: a Siberian meteor mystery from 1908

Next week will see a small asteroid pass closer to the earth than TV satellites, but Nasa have assured the world that there is no danger of impact. The celestial visitor has been named DA14 and is expected to travel at speeds of about 8 miles (13km) a second.

Something travelling that fast has collided with the earth before – in June of 1908, when an asteroid or comet exploded over Siberia. It has come to be known as the Tunguska event.

1930 met head
Published in the Guardian on 21 October 1930. Click on the article to read in full.

People were aware that something momentous had happened – but as the above report demonstrates, the region itself was inaccessible until the 1920s. The 1921 expedition laid bare the devastation caused by impact, with 80m of trees levelled over 830 square miles (2,150 sq km).

These days, thanks to NASA and satellites, we are able to track and announce what will be happening in the skies, but in the earlier part of the 20th century, explanations were not so easily obtainable – and the fear of the unknown convinced some people (probably understandably) of an apocalypse.

1938 ragout
Published in the Observer on 18 September 1938. Click on the article to read in full.

The effect of the collision was also felt in Britain, with a reader writing to the Times newspaper inquiring why the sky was so bright at night. She didn’t receive an answer in 1908, but a 1991 Guardian Notes and Queries offered the hypothesis that the amount of dust thrown up by the blast diffracted the sun’s rays, leading to “someone [playing] a round of golf at St Andrews at 2.30 in the morning.”

Fascination with the Tungaska event has been fuelled not only by the sheer scale of the event, but with the mystery surrounding it. Scientists have been divided for over a century over what actually caused the impact, arguing between comet, asteroid and meteor.

It has even infiltrated popular culture – in 2008, Nintendo brought out a Wii game based on the Tunguska event and in 1996 it received one of the true accolades of mysterious happenings – inspiring an episode of the X-Files.

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