A mini Tunguska

A small team of researchers and journalists from Irkutsk reached the remote area in late October 2002. But despite using satellite data to locate its position, they were unable to identify and reach the impact site (latitude 58 degrees 9 minutes north, longitude 113 degrees 21 minutes east). The researchers collected 25 eyewitness accounts, which generally agreed that 'a large rock fell from the sky and then the earth trembled'. Some local residents as far away as 70 kilometres from impact site said that they saw a 'sphere with a tail'. Witnesses also 'heard a roar and splashes of light above the taiga far away'.

Alexander Doroshock, a gold miner, said that 'suddenly the sky turned turquoise, there was a large flash followed by an explosion that produced a sharp whistling sound'. Several other witnesses also talked about hearing rustling and buzzing sounds as the fireball streaked across the sky. These were probably electro-phonic sounds, which result from the light given off by a meteorite.

Two Mama airport employees, Vera Semenova and Lidiya Berezan, recalled a scary phenomenon: a bright glow at the upper ends of the thin little wooden poles of the fence surrounding the airport's meteorological station. According to Sergei Yazev, the leader of the expedition, the glow was probably caused by a strong electric current produced by the meteorite. As heavy snowfall prevented further searches, the expedition returned to Irkutsk without determining the exact location of the impact site.

In May 2003 an expedition mounted by Kosmopoisk, an organisation of amateur enthusiasts interested in research on various anomalous phenomena, reached the impact site and found an area of about 100 square kilometres covered with fallen trees. Some trees in the centre of this area, where the blast wave touched the ground, showed signs of burning. A few kilometres from this fallen forest they also discovered the impact site, which was covered in about twenty small craters, up to 20 metres in diameter.

On the day after the impact, medical workers in Mama measured radioactivity in local villagers. It showed a two-fold increase above the background radiation, but returned to normal within a few days. Medical workers also told the Kosmopoisk group that the health of local residents worsened for some time after the event. Water and snow in the blast area also tasted bitter. An analysis of water samples in Moscow showed that there were large amounts of tritium - radioactive hydrogen - in the water, 'like in the water of nuclear power station cooling ponds'.

The Kosmopoisk group failed to find any meteorite fragments, and the members believe that the object was probably a small comet with a weight of about 100 tonnes which broke up in mid-air. 'The character of the damage and the radiation background at the explosion epicentre are substantially different from the after-effects of a meteorite fall', says the expedition leader Vadim Chernobrov. However, he adds, the discovery of tritium in water is rather strange for comets. Andrei Ol'khovatov believes that the tritium came from seven underground nuclear tests conducted from 1976 to 1987 about 400 kilometres north of the impact site. 'Siberia is a mysterious place and you could find almost anything you want there, and human activity could make it even more mysterious', says Ol'khovatov.

According to Chernobrov, the members of the expedition do not rule out other rare natural phenomena such as giant ball lightning or ejection of minerals from the ground that disintegrated into water and gas. UFO enthusiasts are not ruling out any cosmic visitor either.

When reporting news of the second largest meteorite, after the Tunguska meteorite, to fall in Siberia within a century, newspapers around the world were more interested in speculating what would have happened if the fireball had exploded over a big city. 'If it hit Central London, Britain would no longer have a capital city', speculated the London Times. 'It was an explosion of such a force that if the supposed fireball had fallen on Moscow, half of the Russian capital would have turned into desert, and the other half into ruins', echoed the Russian news agency Novosti. The news of the Vitim fireball also made asteroid doomsayers worried, because such an impact would force them to revise their estimate for the likelihood of a devastating asteroid striking Earth (meaning asteroid armageddon may be closer than you think). You have not yet heard the last word on the Vitim fireball or the Tunguska fireball.

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