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updated: 2/15/2013 5:58 PM

Russian meteor nothing like prehistoric Des Plaines meteor

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  • A meteor struck the suburbs millions of years ago near Big Bend Lake in Des Plaines. Time has erased signs of the huge crater from the earth's surface, but the event remains recorded in the rocks below.

       A meteor struck the suburbs millions of years ago near Big Bend Lake in Des Plaines. Time has erased signs of the huge crater from the earth's surface, but the event remains recorded in the rocks below.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • A meteor struck the suburbs millions of years ago near Big Bend Lake in Des Plaines. Time has erased signs of the huge crater from the earth's surface, but the event remains recorded in the rocks below.

       A meteor struck the suburbs millions of years ago near Big Bend Lake in Des Plaines. Time has erased signs of the huge crater from the earth's surface, but the event remains recorded in the rocks below.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Ancient meteor impact site

    Graphic: Ancient meteor impact site

 
 

A meteor hundreds of times larger than the one that smashed into Russia hit Des Plaines.

More than 280 million years ago.

As Russians try to learn more about the meteor that showered a border region with fiery rock on Friday, local residents may be surprised to know that the suburbs have experienced their share of astronomical trauma -- in the form of a meteor that left a 5-mile-wide crater and likely wiped out all life for miles around.

You wouldn't know where the crater was by looking at the area today. It's been covered over by more than 280 million years of shifting land masses, blooming forests and several ice ages. But scientists have charted the area where the meteor landed, including Kloempken Prairie Forest Preserve and neighborhoods in the city of Des Plaines. Phillip Burns, a computer programmer at Northwestern University and a lifelong amateur astronomer, used to live in one of those neighborhoods.

"It's so interesting to think that so many people are living over a crater and don't even know it," Burns said.

Burns, 60, who now lives in Mount Prospect, said the crater was discovered in the late 1800s by some of the first residents of Des Plaines, who were trying to dig a well.

"The water table isn't that deep here because of how close we are to Lake Michigan," Burns said. "(The Des Plaines residents) had to dig down way, way below where they would have hit water elsewhere."

Russians millions of years in the future won't have the same experience.

John Spray, the director of the Planetary and Space Science Center, which maintains an online database of all major discovered earth impacts, said the Russian meteor strike was largely burned up by the Earth's atmosphere.

Size matters when it comes to meteors, and the rock that leveled prehistoric Des Plaines was much bigger.

"This one that came in (in Russia) was tiny. It didn't even make a crater," Spray said, adding, "When you see a shooting star at night, that is our atmosphere dealing with a meteor."

Still, the meteor that struck Russia was larger than your average shooting star. Experts have estimated the meteor weighed 10 tons.

Spray said the most likely explanation for the damage the meteor caused was that the atmosphere forced it to break apart into tiny pieces, pieces that reportedly landed in six separate cities near the Russia-Kazakhstan border.

The meteor caused a shock wave that broke windows all over the sparsely populated Chelyabinsk region. Cuts from broken glass are the chief injuries reported so far.

Burns said the Russian meteor tells us something important about the Earth's place in the universe.

"It reminds us that the Earth is always in the middle of a shooting gallery," he said.

Park Forest residents were reminded of that shooting gallery in March 2003, when they were pelted by a spray of meteorites, which were later sold on eBay for thousands of dollars a pop.

Burns recalled driving to Park Forest at the time to witness the aftermath of the extremely rare astronomical event, only the third such shower to hit Illinois in the state's history.

Spray said he wanted to stress how infrequently large-scale meteors such as the one that struck Des Plaines or even the one that broke apart over Russia occur.

"Impact is a normal process," Spray said. "And there have been less impacts as time has gone on."

Between 50,000 and 100,000 tons of space dust and meteorites fall on the planet every year, and very rarely are people hurt or property damaged, he pointed out.

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