The Orgueil Meteorite’s Fall

However flawed the science might be in Richard Hoover’s paper claiming signs of alien life in the Orgueil meteorite, I like his description of the stone’s blazing fall into southern France.

At 8:08 P.M. on May 14, 1864 a brilliant fireball illuminated a large region of southern France and thunderous explosions were heard as the blue-white fireball streaked across the sky, turned a dull red color and produced a long thin white smoke trail (Jollois, 1864; d’Esparbés, 1864). The weather was nice on this spring evening in the south of France. Soon after the explosions were heard, a shower of stones fell within an 18 km east-west scatter ellipse between the villages of Orgueil, Campsas and Nohic (Tarn-et-Garonne). The main fall occurred near the village of Orgueil (43o 53’ N; 01o 23’ E) and villagers collected over 20 jet-black stones immediately after the fall. Many of the Orgueil stones had complete fusion crusts and a few were quite large (one with mass ~11 kg). The Orgueil bolide was so spectacular that many villagers at St. Clar thought they were surrounded by flames. The Marquise de Puylaroque (1864) reported that her house looked like “the interior of a furnace” and she heard a rumbling noise that sounded like firearms and lasted for 2-3 minutes. The detonations were so violent that some villagers thought the event was an earthquake (Bergé, 1864).

Elsewhere, I was interested to find this isn’t the first time someone has found something in the Orgueil mass. This means nothing one way or another as far as Hoover’s conclusions goes, but it’s an interesting bit of history. From Wikipedia:

In 1965, a fragment of the Orgueil meteorite, kept in a sealed glass jar in Montauban since its discovery, was found to have a seed capsule embedded in it, whilst the original glassy layer on the outside remained apparently undisturbed. Despite great initial excitement, the seed capsule was shown to be that of a European rush, glued into the fragment and camouflaged using coal dust. The outer “fusion layer” was in fact glue. Whilst the perpetrator is unknown, it is thought that the hoax was aimed at influencing 19th century debate on spontaneous generation by demonstrating the transformation of inorganic to biological matter.

Update Mar 9, 2:18 pm GMT: Since posting this I’ve learned that Ferris Jabr put up a longer (but not terribly long; it’s just right) post on the meteor’s historic fall. Jabr also reported on the wider controversy over whether the meteor contains alien life, in Alien-life claims spark monster mud-slinging, which provides some very nice context.

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