The Great Chicago Meteor of 2003

Robert Roy Britt has a great follow-up over on, covering the large meteorite that hit Chicago on the evening of Wed 26 Mar 03. In my posting over on Arcturus , I estimated its kinetic energy at seven-tenths of a kiloton. Now, thanks to the U of C’s own Steven Simon, I can perform the calculation more accurately.

From the article, the inputs:

The Chicago rock was stony and about 6 feet in diameter, the researchers conclude.
“It hit the atmosphere at about 40,000 mph,” Simon said.
He said the original rock weighed at least 1,980 pounds as it entered the atmosphere.

A spherical rock of radius r = 1 meter and mass m = 900 kg has volume V = 4pr³/3 = 4.2 m³ and density r = m/V = 210 kg/m&sup3. Since a solid chunk of water ice of this size would mass around 3,800 kg, either the meteor was nonspherical and its longest dimension was 2 meters, reducing its volume, or — more likely — it had the consistency of a loose pile of rocks and was mostly empty space.
In any case, the U of C news release explains that the meteorite has been classified as “an L5 chondrite, a type of stony meteorite, one low in iron” — a good thing for Chicago; a solid chunk of nickel-iron two meters across would have massed around 30 metric tons, would certainly have penetrated the atmosphere intact, and would have hit with a kinetic energy equivalent to a small tactical nuclear weapon, a little over 1 kiloton of TNT.
For the actual event, applying KE = ½mv², with m = 900 kg and v = 40,000 mph = 18,000 m/sec, we get ~150 billion joules. Dividing by 4.2 MJ, that’s 36,000 kg TNT equivalent, a measly one-twenty-eighth of a kiloton. On the other hand, Chicago’s population density is about 13,000 persons per square mile — just under 20 persons per acre! Fling nearly 80,000 pounds of high explosives at a target like that, and people are going to get hurt. So it’s a good thing the meteor blew apart into small pieces in the upper atmosphere, rather than just above the ground.
As things were, it was in some ways the closest call of our time. Quoting again from the U of C news release:

Local residents collected hundreds of meteorite fragments totaling approximately 65 pounds from an area extending from Crete in the south to the southern end of Olympia Fields in the north. Located in Chicago’s south suburbs, “this is the most densely populated region to be hit by a meteorite shower in modern times,” the authors write [in the April issue of the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science].
One meteorite narrowly missed striking a sleeping Park Forest resident after it burst through the ceiling of a bedroom. The meteorite sliced through some window blinds, cratered the windowsill, then bounced across the room and broke a mirror before coming to rest.

Amateur astronomers everywhere are turning green with envy reading about that person.
Shameless plug: see my A Modest Proposal … and Asteroid Detection, Again for some risk-management ideas in this area.

3 thoughts on “The Great Chicago Meteor of 2003”

  1. It might be interesting to create prediction contracts for events of this type — e.g., odds of a fatal impact by a particular date. OTOH such contracts might not work, because the most useful time-horizons might be too long for practical betting purposes.

  2. Not necessarily. Reasonable predictions on shorter timescales, on the order of a decade, could include:
    Large explosion (~100 kT) in upper atmosphere (~30 km altitude) in politically sensitive region, eg Indian subcontinent.
    Small tsunami (onshore wave height of a few meters) caused by oceanic impact, most likely in Pacific.
    Recovery of large fragment (~10-100 kg) immediately after impact in a populated area.
    Successful prediction/observation of near-miss close enough to be naked-eye visible from some inhabited portion of the world.

  3. I think that a decade is still probably too long, given that typical contract durations are no more than a few months. You have to be able to interest people in betting, after all. Maybe there will be enough interest, but I’m skeptical. There are other longshot bets that have (probably) quicker payoffs.

    Tsunamis, volcano eruptions, and, especially, storms, should be more easily doable. A one-season hurricane contract would be a natural, as would tornado-damage and flood contracts. (Currently they list only a few snow contracts.)

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