The meteorite hunter

In 1921 the Soviet Academy of Sciences approved the country's first special meteorite expedition, which was charged with the task of locating and examining meteorites fallen in inhabited regions of Russia. One of the expedition's tasks was to gather information from local populations and talk to eyewitnesses. The expedition left Petrograd (as St Petersburg was known after the First World War; the old name sounded too German for contemporary Russians) on 5 September 1921 under the leadership of Kulik.

At this time Kulik was not aware of the Tunguska meteorite. He first heard about it at the railway station as the small expedition party set off on the Trans-Siberian Express. D.O. Sviatsky, editor of the magazine Mirovedeniye, ran up to the train and gave Kulik a page torn from the 1910 calendar published by Otto Kirchner of St Petersburg. On the back of this page was the following note:

About 8 a.m. in the middle of June 1908 a huge meteorite is said to have fallen in Tomsk, several sagenes [1 sagene = 2.314 metres] from the railway line near Filimonovo junction and less than 11 verst

[1 verst = 1.067 kilometres] from Kansk. Its fall was accompanied by a frightful roar and a deafening crash, which was heard more than 40 verst away. The passengers of a train approaching the junction at the time were struck by the unusual noise. The driver stopped the train and the passengers poured out to examine the fallen object, but they were unable to study the meteorite closely because it was red-hot. Later, when it had cooled, various men from the junction and engineers from the railway examined it, and probably dug around it. According to these people, the meteorite was almost entirely buried in the ground, and only the top of it protruded. It was a stone block, whitish in colour, and as much as 6 cubic sagenes in size.

Kulik was fascinated by the story, so fascinated that he immediately decided to investigate it further. Over the years his fascination would become an obsession that would consume the rest of his professional life.

The Academy of Sciences had provided Kulik's team with a carriage on the Trans-Siberian Express. They travelled across the Urals into Siberia, then made stops in Omsk, Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk, and finally arrived at Kansk. At Kansk, Kulik searched through Siberian newspapers published during the summer of 1908 for reports of a meteorite fall. He soon discovered that the calendar note was the beginning of an article published on 12 July 1908 in the newspaper Sibirskaya Zhizn from the Tomsk region. The article turned out to be wrong in almost every detail, except about the train stopping near Kansk.

As he sifted through newspapers he found many reports of a huge meteorite fall on the morning of 30 June 1908. He prepared a questionnaire and published it in local newspapers and distributed 2,500 copies among the locals. As a result, he collected breathtaking personal accounts, which were vivid and rich in details, from several dozen eyewitnesses who could still remember the event. From the information collected, Kulik painstakingly painted a picture of the meteorite, which he called the 'Filimonovo meteorite' (the term 'Tunguska meteorite' was not used until many years after the first Tunguska expedition in 1927).

Though he now firmly believed that between 5.00 and 8.00 a.m. on 30 June 1908 a giant meteorite flew in the general direction of south to north and fell probably in the basin of the Vanavara River, a tributary of the Stony Tunguska River, he was unable to embark upon a search. The expedition had run out of funds and the authorities needed his train carriage which had been lent for the expedition.

On return to Petrograd, Kulik submitted his report to the Academy of Sciences in which he suggested that the Siberian meteorite was a rare event in human history and must be investigated. His 'Account of the Meteorite Expedition' was published in the Journal of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The Academy members, however, were sceptical of the claim. But Kulik was not alone in his quest.

A.V. Voznesensky, who was Director of the Irkutsk Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory in 1908, published a report in Mirovedeniye in August 1925 in which he claimed that the seismic and air waves recorded by his observatory on 30 June 1908 were both caused by the fall of a giant meteorite. He suggested that the air waves were caused by 'the explosion of the meteorite at a height of about 30 kilometres above the surface of Earth'. In his report, Voznesensky also rightly pointed out that his observatory's seismograph registration of the fall of the meteorite was the first in the history of science.

Voznesensky also suggested that the investigator of the spot where the Siberian meteorite fell would find something very similar to the meteorite crater of Arizona. 'The Indians of Arizona still preserve the legend that their ancestors saw a fiery chariot fall from the sky and penetrate the ground at the spot where the crater is; the present-day Evenki people have a similar legend about a new fiery stone', he said. He concluded his report with a tantalising idea: the search for the meteorite could prove a very profitable enterprise, particularly if this meteorite turned out to belong to the iron class.

In the same issue of Mirovedeniye, S.V. Obruchev, a geologist, wrote about his studies in the summer of 1924 in the Tunguska region. He also described stories of a huge calamity which had been told to him by the local indigenous inhabitants, the Tungus people (later named Evenki by the Soviets; they are probably the oldest surviving native Siberians). Obruchev speculated that the calamity was caused by a giant meteorite. 'In the eyes of the Tungus people, the meteorite is apparently sacred and they carefully conceal the place where it fell', he said. However, he learned that there was a 'flattened forest' three or four days northeast of Vanavara.

In 1926, I.M. Suslov, an ethnographer, visited the Tunguska region. In his report 'In Search of the Great Meteorite of 1908' in Mirovedeniye (March 1927), he described some of the 60 eyewitness accounts of the explosion he had collected. In these accounts, he said, such expressions were heard as 'the forest was crushed', 'the grain stores were destroyed', 'the reindeer were annihilated', 'people were injured', 'the taiga was flattened', and so forth. Suslov also visited the tent of Ilya Potapovich Petrov, the very same Evenki whom Obruchev had questioned in 1924. Ilya Potapovich, who would work as a guide on Kulik's 1927 expedition, agreed to Suslov's request to draw a map of the area of the catastrophe. 'Ilya Potapovich drew the map with coloured pencils, and a group of Tungus made corrections', Suslov said.

The articles of Voznesensky, Obruchev and Suslov convinced the Soviet Academy that an event of major importance had occurred and investigations should be continued. Kulik's mentor Vernadsky also supported his request. 'The expedition proposed by Kulik may turn out to have a very great scientific significance, and its results may repay a hundredfold the time and money spent on it', he wrote to the Academy. The Academy approved the first Tunguska expedition in 1926.

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