The 1908 Tunguska event has always been mysterious and intriguing because no one has been able to fully explain the explosion that leveled 830 square miles of Siberian forest. But the latest research has concluded that the Tunguska explosion was almost certainly caused by a comet entering the Earth’s atmosphere. And how researcher Michael Kelly from Cornell University came to that conclusion is quite interesting: He analyzed the space shuttle’s exhaust plume and noctilucent clouds.
“It’s almost like putting together a 100-year-old murder mystery,” said Kelley, a professor of Engineering, who led the research team. “The evidence is pretty strong that the Earth was hit by a comet in 1908.” Previous speculation had ranged from comets to meteors.
Noctilucent clouds are brilliant, night-visible clouds made of ice particles and only form at very high altitudes and in extremely cold temperatures. These clouds appeared a day after the Tunguska explosion and also appear following a shuttle mission.
The researchers contend that the massive amount of water vapor spewed into the atmosphere by the 1908 comet’s icy nucleus was caught up in swirling eddies with tremendous energy by a process called two-dimensional turbulence, which explains why the noctilucent clouds formed a day later many thousands of miles away.
Noctilucent clouds are the Earth’s highest clouds, forming naturally in the mesosphere at about 55 miles over the polar regions during the summer months when the mesosphere is around minus 180 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 117 degrees Celsius).
The space shuttle exhaust plume, the researchers say, resembled the comet’s action. A single space shuttle flight injects 300 metric tons of water vapor into the Earth’s thermosphere, and the water particles have been found to travel to the Arctic and Antarctic regions, where they form the clouds after settling into the mesosphere.
Kelley and collaborators saw the noctilucent cloud phenomenon days after the space shuttle Endeavour (STS-118) launched on Aug. 8, 2007. Similar cloud formations had been observed following launches in 1997 and 2003.
Following the Tunguska Event, the night skies shone brightly for several days across Europe, particularly Great Britain — more than 3,000 miles away. Kelley said he became intrigued by the historical eyewitness accounts of the aftermath, and concluded that the bright skies must have been the result of noctilucent clouds. The comet would have started to break up at about the same altitude as the release of the exhaust plume from the space shuttle following launch. In both cases, water vapor was injected into the atmosphere.
The scientists have attempted to answer how this water vapor traveled so far without scattering and diffusing, as conventional physics would predict.
“There is a mean transport of this material for tens of thousands of kilometers in a very short time, and there is no model that predicts that,” Kelley said. “It’s totally new and unexpected physics.”
This “new” physics, the researchers contend, is tied up in counter-rotating eddies with extreme energy. Once the water vapor got caught up in these eddies, the water traveled very quickly — close to 300 feet per second.
Scientists have long tried to study the wind structure in these upper regions of the atmosphere, which is difficult to do by such traditional means as sounding rockets, balloon launches and satellites, explained Charlie Seyler, Cornell professor of electrical engineering and paper co-author.
“Our observations show that current understanding of the mesosphere-lower thermosphere region is quite poor,” Seyler said. The thermosphere is the layer of the atmosphere above the mesosphere.