When the Sky Came Falling Down- Remembering the Tsukuba Meteorite (つくば隕石) of 1996 as I sit in my lawn-chair getting ready to watch the Geminid Meteor Shower of 2015
By Avi Landau
I`m out in a nearby park reclining in a lawn-chair. I`ve got a thermos full of hot-coffee and a pair of binoculars. It`s past midnight and I`m a little uneasy- worried that someone might call the cops, reporting a wierdo lounging outside in the dark. But if the police do come, I`ve got a perfectly reasonable explanation for them, though – I want to enjoy the Geminid meteor shower. The peak should be about right now. There should be dozens of shooting stars visible in the sky. There is only one problem ,though, it`s overcast, and the sky is completely obscured – neither binoculars, thermos, nor lawn-chair will help me. I can only hope that the clouds miraculously clear and reveal the celestial fireworks I know are going on behind them.
But while I wait, my mind races….. remembering past meteor showers, some painfully cold and disappointing, and some cold and spectacular….. and then I recall the greatest Tsukuba meteor story of them all……
Let it to you:
Nearly twenty years ago, on January 7th 1996, Junko Yamomoto was in the car with her family. It was 4:20PM and they were driving around Tsukuba`s Matsushiro area looking for a restaurant that they had heard about and wanted to try. Gazing out the window while her husband was at the wheel, Junko was struck dumb for an instant by an amazing sight- a bright round object zipping low across the evening sky. When she tried to alert the rest of her family to what she had just seen, the fireball had already disappeared from view, and the moving car did not provide a good vantage point from which to observe the trail of smoke which still lingered in the sky. After a few excited: “Oh my God”s! and “What was that? “s, her kids, tried to calm her down with a skeptical: “Sure mom. SURE you saw something”.
At the same time The Kawabata`s – husband, wife, and daughter were in THEIR car, not very far away. The bright streak of light appeared directly in front of them. While mother and daughter flailed their hands and shrieked GYAAAA!, the father, calmy and cooly assessing the situation, hit it right on the button, and muttered a deadpan: INSEKI DA (隕石だ！) – A meteor!
Junko-San and the Kawabatas were not the only ones to have noticed something unusual that evening. In fact, numerous witnesses from all over the Kanto Region ( and beyond) later reported seeing either a fireball, a streak of very bright light, or the remains of a smokey tail. There was also apparently a very loud BANG which resounded throughout the region, and windows were also said to have been rattled. A couple of people even had the presence of mind ( and good luck) to get some good photos (see above) of what would come to be known as the Tsukuba Meteorite .
( Yes, that IS the meteorite`s official name. It is common practice to name a meteorite after the location in which it has been found, though there are notables exceptions such as the Hodges Meteorite, named after Ann Hodges, the ill-fated woman STRUCK by the extraterrestrial stone which bears her family name).
Lets go back a bit .What had happened was this. After approximately 4.6 billion years of floating in space ( since it had broken away from a much larger space rock), the future meteor, several meters in diameter, finally crossed the Earth`s path just as the planet happened to be passing, and was sucked into its atmosphere. As it plummeted downward, friction created extremely high temperatures and the rock lit up like a light bulb and left a trail of steamy smoke behind it. As it neared Tsukuba, it broke up into little pieces, which were eventually found at 23 locations throughout the city limits ( as well as in neighboring Ushiku and Tsuchiura).
Miraculously, only one building was damaged, an auto repair shop in Kami Hiro-Oka. This was the first piece of the Tsukuba Meteorite found and was thus designated Tsukuba Meteorite 1 (This piece was checked for radiation nine hours after impact and fast fading cosmic rays were detected, providing important data for scientists) . After that, when word got around about the extremely rare event that had happened in the area, it was METEORITE MANIA, with everyone from school children to the elderly scouring the ground for pieces of it ( aided by a leaflet which had been distributed which explained how to identify them).
Most of the Meteorite pieces which were recoverered were found in fields, along roads or in peoples gardens.
Two years ago (after all those years), the Ibaraki Science Museum put out a call for any witnesses to the meteor-fall to come forward and tell there stories. At that time they put together an extremely informative and satisfying exhibition, detailing not only all aspects of the Tsukuba Meteorite, but a comprehensive explanation of what meteorites are, their history in Japan ( 50 meteorites have been found over the years in Japan, including the only recorded case of a meteorite landing on a ship!), as well as in other countries. There is special section on meteorites on Antarctica and also one examining the possibility that the extinction of the dinosaurs was brought about by a meteor. Real meteorites can be touched (and smelled!) and looked at through a microscope ( mind-blowing!) .
When I went to this exhibit (in March 2011) I was lucky enough to have Junko-San, an actual witness to that amazing occurence ( as I have said before, only 50 meteorites have been found in Japan, and among those, only about 40 have been seen falling to the Earth) accompany me to the Ibaraki Nature Museum ( along with some other good friends), which is about an hour west of Tsukuba by car.
The exhibiton was much better than we had expected, and we left satisfied after really having learned alot- just about everything I could have wanted to know about meteorites in Japan AND the world at large. It was exciting for me, and NOSTALGIC for Junko-San.
Ever since seeing that memorable exhition I have always remembered to keep my head up and eyes open- never knowing what would going come streaking by!
METEORITES IN JAPANESE HISTORY
Surely the ancient residents of the Japanese Archipelago took note of unusual celestial phenomena- shooting stars, fire-balls, and comets ( as well as eclipses, of course!).
The second oldest extant Japanese text, the Nihon Shoki ( circa 720 AD), contains a passage which describes something which very well might have been a meteor falling to earth in the 9th year of the Emperor Jomei (637). ” In the second month, a large star shot across from east to west, creating a sound like thunder”.
Interstingly, there is an old shrine in Aichi Prefecture, the Hoshi-Miya-Sha (星宮社), which is said to have been founded to enshrine a star which fell in the year 637. There is NO evidence , however, to confirm that a meteorite was found ( the shrine might have been erected based on the Nhon Shoki passeage- or as some suggest, after sightings of comets which could have been sighted in 634 or 684).
The first confirmed report in Japan ( and according to the exhibition- THE FIRST IN THE WORLD!!) of a sighted falling meteorite which was actually found on the ground occurred in what is now Fukuoka Prefecture on the Island of Kyushu in the year 861 AD ( the mid Heian Period). According to records, on the 7th day of the 4th month the afternoon sky brightened and there was an explosive blast. The next day, on the grounds of a shrine ,the Suga Jinja (須賀神社), a small crater was discovered. Inside there was a black stone which had fallen from the heavens. This stone was then placed in a pawlonia wood (kiri) box and preserved at the shrine. Since the date and place of the falling and discovery are inscribed on the box, this is considered the OLDEST recorded case of a meteorite whose fall AND discovery were witnessed. It is called the No-kata (直方) Meteorite, after the place in which it was discovered。
If you visit the science museum ( Kagaku Kan ) in Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture, you can see the Sasagase Meteor (笹ヶ瀬隕石) , which was seen falling and then soon recovered in 1688 near the Buddhist temple Zofuku-Ji. A priest of that temple wrote: ” A purple cloud appeared in the northwest, and the sky rumbled as if it were crumbling. Then something fell into the vegetable field south-west of the temple”.