The Great Siberian
The first officer turned to his commander with
a stoic expression. "Emergency landing procedures are in place.
Descending on a six-point two-degree path through the atmosphere,
Captain," he announced, "Optimum angle to avoid burning up,
or skipping back out into space."
"Very well," the Captain acknowledged with
a nod. "What does the landing site look like?"
"Isolated from most of the native population
and near a major body of fresh water we can use while we make
our repairs. Touchdown should be in-"
Somewhere on the bridge a siren went off. The
ship began to shutter.
"Captain," a young ensign assigned to the engineering
station cried, "Core integrity has dropped 30 percent in the
last 15 seconds. We're losing control!"
"Confirmed," added the first officer checking
his computer. He turned to the captain. "Temporary repairs are
not holding. Core collapse will occur within the next five minutes.
All backup systems have failed."
The two officers' eyes met. They both knew
there was nothing that could be done.
"Put the native population map on screen."
In front of them appeared the dark outline
of a continent with white dots speckled across it. Most of them
appeared along the edges. Toward one side of the ship's course
lay a particularly dark area.
The first officer pointed. "Captain, there-"
"I see it. Helm, change course to one-zero-zero-five-point-five."
The young ensign hesitated. "Captain, that
will accelerate the core failure-"
"Make that turn," the Captain commanded, "NOW!"
The ship lurched as it violently changed its
"Core integrity down to 10 percent, Captain."
"Altitude 5 kilometers."
"WARNING!" a mechanical voice screamed, "Core
failure is imminent! WARN-"
an instant the ship's nuclear engines overloaded and exploded
with the force of 30 million tons of TNT. The vessel and crew
were vaporized. The atomic explosion scorched the planet below
and a column of fire split the sky. A wall of superheated air
pounded the surface crushing 1,200 square miles of forest. Above
the continent a mushroom cloud formed...
The above dramatization is one of the wilder theories
proposed to explain the great Siberian explosion that occurred
over central Asia on June 30, 1908. On that day something fell
out of the sky. Something that produced the largest explosion
in human memory. The largest explosion, that is, until the H-bomb
The object, whatever it was, appeared above Western
China, heading due north, just after seven in the morning. It
plunged through the atmosphere glowing with the heat of 5,000
degrees. In central Russia it moved overhead with a deafening
supersonic roar that terrified the inhabitants. Before the object
raced a ballistic wave that leveled trees and knocked over houses.
Then at 7:17 AM, near the Stony Tunguska River,
a cataclysmic explosion occurred. It was so powerful that the
seismograph at Irkutsk, some 550 miles away, registered what
looked like an earthquake. Even in Washington D.C., on the other
side of the world, the shock was recorded by sensitive seismic
Forty miles from the blast center at a town called
Vanavara, people were thrown into the air by a shock wave that
shattered windows and collapsed ceilings. Herdsmen working closer
to the site were deafened by a series of thunderclaps that could
be heard for 500 miles. Near the town of Kansk, a stop on the
Trans-Siberian Railway, a train screamed to a halt when the
engineer feared it would be thrown from its tracks by the violent
shaking. Passengers were jolted from their seats by the movement.
Kansk was 375 miles from the blast center.
As the shocks settled down the whole region around
the Tunguska was showered with "black rain": condensation mixed
with dirt and debris sucked into the swirling vortex of the
explosion and thrown out again. Amazingly the blast point was
so isolated that there was no record of any human being dying
at Tunguska despite an explosion that would have dwarfed the
bombs dropped at Hiroshima (above-left) and Nagasaki
during WWII. So isolated that no scientist bothered to investigate
the rumors of the event for thirteen years.
in 1921 a Russian scientist named Leonid
Kulik was charged with the task of locating and examining
meteorites that had fallen within
the Soviet Union (Meteorites are rocks in space, sometimes refered
to as asteroids, that fall to Earth. If they burn up as they
hit the atmosphere they are called meteors). While preparing
for the expedition he came across an account of the Tunguska
explosion reprinted from an old newspaper. It took him six years
to finally find the site of the blast.
On April 13, 1927, Kulik stood on the edge of
the Makirta River and looked out across the land at the immense
devastation. "The results of even a cursory examination exceeded
all the tales of the eyewitnesses and my wildest expectations,"
Kulik discovered an oval more than 40 miles wide
where the forest had been flattened (above-right). Trees
were uprooted, burned and laid with their tops pointing out
from the heart of the affected region. At the center Kulik expected
to find a large crater where the meteorite had hit along with
fragments of the meteorite itself. He didn't.
Instead of finding a crater in the center, Kulik
found a very strange forest. Trees here were not pushed over
and uprooted. Instead they stood straight up like telephone
poles and were stripped of their branches. A careful search
of the area also yielded no remnant of any meteorite.
Kulik continued to look for the meteorite, unsuccessfully,
for the rest of his life, but other scientists began to think
that perhaps the object was something else. In the early 1930s
two astronomers, F.J.W. Whipple and I.S. Astapovich
independently came to the conclusion that the object had been
a gaseous comet ( below-left) that had left no trace
of itself after impact. Still, if a comet hit the ground, where
was the crater?
the 1940's a Russian scientist named E.L. Krinov, who
had traveled to the site on one of Kulik's trips, suggested
there was no crater because the object must have exploded before
hitting the ground. Unfortunately further work on Krinov's theory
had to be put off. The Soviet Union became engaged in defending
itself from Germany during WWII and there was little time or
money available for scientific research not connected with the
The war brought with it a new, terrible weapon.
The weapon's use, though, brought new insight on the Tunguska
explosion. Aleksander Kazansev was one of the first Russian
scientists to evaluate the atomic bomb explosion at Hiroshima,
Japan. He was also intrigued by the mystery of the Tunguska
blast and quickly found connections between the two. The strange
forest of trees, stripped of branches, but still standing, was
found at Hiroshima too. The American atomic bomb had exploded
at high altitude and the downward rushing shock wave had left
the trees directly beneath standing while flattening trees,
and houses, further out in a radiating pattern. The mushroom
shaped cloud and the black rain that followed the Hiroshima
blast also conformed to reports from Tunguska.
Kazantsev was the first to suggest that the event
was the caused by the explosion of an atomic powered spaceship.
While most scientists laughed at this explaination, some took
seriously his suggestion the blast was atomic in nature, and
they began to notice other similarities. This included apparent
effects from radiation. Both the reindeer population at Tunguska
and the human population at Hiroshima developed similar skin
diseases. There was also evidence of accelerated plant growth
at both locations.
Some scientists suggested that if the blast was
atomic in nature it might have been explained by some natural
phenomenon, rather than a spaceship. Two possible candidates
are an anti-matter meteorite or a mini-black hole.
material with a reversed charge at the sub-atomic level. As
far as we know it is extremely rare in the universe, but it
has been produced on Earth in laboratory experiments. When anti-matter
meets up with normal matter they annihilate each other in a
burst of energy. A small chunk of anti-matter could make an
enormous explosion. If the Tunguska meteor was made of anti-matter
it would have exploded violently when it came into contact with
the thick, lower atmosphere. The effects of the explosion would
have looked very much like that of an atomic bomb.
One objection to the "anti-rock" theory is that
an anti-matter explosion should have set off a chain of events
leading to a significant rise in the amount of radioactive carbon-14
in the air. Scientists examined tree rings laid down in 1908
and found a rise in carbon-14, but not enough to support the
idea of an annihilation large enough to explain the explosion.
"Black holes" are usually the final result
of the collapse of a large star at the end of its life. Some
cosmic theories suggest, though, that "mini- black holes" might
have been created at the beginning of the universe and drift
aimlessly through galactic void. The density and resulting gravitational
pull of such an object is so high that not even light can escape
from it. A mini-black hole passing through the Earth certainly
would have produced many of the effects seen by witnesses of
the Tunguska event. What it would probably not have produced
is the visible sighting as seen as the object entered the atmosphere.
A black hole should have also produced a crater. For these reasons,
argue some scientists, a mini-black hole is not a serious contender
to explain what happened.
In the 1960's several Soviet scientists tried
to show that the object had changed course during its descent.
They based their theory on eye-witness accounts and ground damage
from the ballistic shock wave that proceeded the object as it
traveled at supersonic speeds. This idea, though, has not been
completely accepted in scientific circles, but if the object
did make a mid-flight maneuver it would certainly bolster the
Research on Tunguska continues today. Christopher
Chyba, of NASA, Paul Thomas, of the University of
Wisconsin, and Kevin Zahnle, of NASA, have used computer
simulations to calculate that a stony asteroid, about 100 feet
across, could produce the right sized blast when it fragmented
and vaporized before hitting the ground. They point out that
iron asteroids are much more dense and would have probably survived
the flight to hit the ground and make a crater. Recent analysis
of resin from trees surviving the blast seem to confirm the
So what was the Tunguska explosion? Meteorite,
comet, anti-rock, mini-black hole or alien spaceship? It remains
a mystery. One thing is for sure, if the object had hit the
Earth a few hours later it would have come down over Europe
and the death toll would have been a half-million people.
There are probably other Tunguska-type objects,
in addition to asteroids, in space which could do at least the
same amount of damage, if not more. Scientists estimate that
an object capable of making a Tunguska-sized explosion hits
the Earth on an average of once a century. The only questions
are: "How soon?" and "Where?"
Copyright Lee Krystek
1997. All Rights Reserved.