By Paul Curnow (B.ED) (September 2016)
ASSA Vice President &
Lecturer, Adelaide Planetarium, University of South Australia
As a young child I remember sitting outside for long hours gazing at the sky during the summer evenings. I would sit there counting satellites and sometimes imagine what it would be like to travel in space. I would also get excited when I would see ‘falling stars’ or ‘shooting stars’, as they would dart across the majestic stellar canvas before me. Moreover, I can remember my grandparents telling me to ‘make a wish’ as these cosmic tadpoles fell from the sky. As an adult, I had the opportunity to watch in awe over 1,000 of these ‘falling stars’ as they fell during the visually stunning Leonid Meteor Shower of 2001.
However as most people are aware, these ‘falling stars’ or ‘shooting stars’ are not actually stars at all, they are the dust and rock that fall through our atmosphere and occasionally impact the Earth’s surface. From a scientific perspective when drifting through space these rocky objects are called ‘meteoroids’ and they are somewhat smaller than their larger cousins the ‘asteroids’; when we see them as ‘falling stars’ we call them ‘meteors’, and if they hit the ground we refer to them as ‘meteorites’. So basically meteorites are rocks that generally contain a large amount of extraterrestrial iron, which was once part of large asteroids or possibly planets. When I was a child, I still have fond memories of visiting the South Australian Museum which then had a small room filled with meteorites. I remember the excitement I felt as I got to touch something that had actually been in space!
The root word ‘meteor’ is derived from the Greek μετέωρος “meteōros,” basically meaning “lofty and high in the air.” Usually, this solid material is only grain sized, however, sometimes larger rocks enter the Earth’s atmosphere (typically between 70-100km in altitude) and a bow wave is formed in front of the object, which heats up the molecules of air to the point that the meteor starts to glow and lose material as it burns up. The end result is frequently a spectacular display of light and colour as this sold material plunges towards the Earth.
Today, one needs to look no further than their local natural history museum to find impressive collections of meteorites and tektites. For example, the South Australian Museum still has one of the most impressive meteorites on display in their front foyer the 1145kg Mundrabilla Meteorite; this meteorite remains the largest mass recovery found in Australia. The first pieces of the Mundrabilla Meteorite were found in 1911, with two more large fragments discovered in 1966 by a couple of surveyors working in the area. Still later in 1979, two more large fragments were found about 20 km east of the 1966 location.
In addition the museum contains a number of smaller meteorites and tektites. Tektites, taken from the Greek τηκτός “tēktos,” basically meaning molten, are gravel-size bodies composed of natural glass that are formed from terrestrial debris being ejected during extraterrestrial impacts and then later re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Also, when found in Australia they are often referred to as ‘australites’, and there are a number of strewn fields to be found throughout Australia.
Meteorites and tektites often hold important significance within the spiritual and cultural beliefs of many Australian Aboriginal groups. For example, they are sometimes considered as bringers of good luck and able to ward off illnesses. What is more, tektites have been carried in the beards and pouches of medicine men, and considered to emanate power from their navels. In addition, tektites have been associated with burial ceremonies; especially with those men of high degree. Some groups also believed that tektites could be used to cure toothache and when heated and applied to the stomach to relieve pain, where as others, used them as death pointers and power emblems that could be used against their enemies.
However, meteors and meteorites have frequently been associated with omens, death, and malevolent spirits. For example, the Boorong People from north-western Victoria called them Porkelongtoute and these meteors were seen as a portent of evil to those who had lost a front tooth. In order to avoid this evil the Boorong would stir their fires and cast about firebrands. But, the Turrbal People of the Brisbane area believed a meteor to be a Kundri, which was a medicine man, flying through the air and dropping his firestick in order to kill a person.
When the Kurnai People (also spelt Gunai) from south-eastern Victoria saw a meteor they believed that a person had been killed in that direction. Also, in western Victoria the Wotjobaluk People referred to meteors as Yerigauil. The Wotjobaluk believed it signified that a person in that direction had lost their kidney fat to a Medicine Man. Further south, the Plangermairrener People of north-eastern Tasmania, saw meteors as a woman named Puggareetya who was thrown across the sky by ‘snake’ on whom she used to play tricks. Whereas the Kaurna People from Adelaide believe that meteors are orphaned children. Moreover, the Kuku Yalanji People from the Bloomfield River region south of Cooktown in Queensland saw meteors as firesticks called gi-we that were moving with a birdlike motion through the sky. It was believed that when a person fell ill and was travelling outside of their home country, his or her fellow travellers would hurl a lighted firestick up into the heavens in the direction of the sick person. The family of the ill person would hear them cry and see the message in the sky and know that one in their group had fallen ill.
Many other ancient cultures seem to be aware of the connection of meteorites to the sky. For example, the Ancient Egyptian’s referred to them as the ‘stones of heaven’ and even the Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s iron dagger is said to be made of meteoric iron. The Ancient Hittites also used the metals found in meteorites and referred to them as the ‘fire from heaven’. For the Pawnee Tribe of North America, meteorites were considered to be the children of Tirawahat, their supreme being, and in Hawaii meteors are referred to as Hōkū-lele, meaning “jumping star.” In New Zealand (Aotearoa) there are various names that are applied throughout to meteors. For example, in some regions, a meteor is regarded as the visible representation of an atua, an ancestor, which they called tūnui, and in other regions the name unahi o Takero is used to describe a battle of meteors in the form of a meteor shower.
To conclude, ‘falling stars’ or if you prefer ‘meteors’ still beckon the attention of humankind. Regardless of whether they are a just small grain of sand, which give off a brief flash of light as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere, to the larger, civilisation threatening ones, similar to the one that fell over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013, these rocks from space will continue to capture the attention and imaginations of us all.
Bevan, Alex, & McNamara, Ken, 1993, Australia’s Meteorite Craters, Western Australian Museum, Perth.
Gostin, Olga, [anthropologist], 2013-2015, personal communication.
Howitt, Alfred William, 1904, The Native Tribes of South East Australia, Macmillan and Co., Limited, London.
Johnson, Dianne, 1998, Night Skies of Aboriginal Australia, University of Sydney, Sydney.
Krupp, Edwin, C., 1991, Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths & Legends of the Sun, Moon, Stars, & Planets, Oxford University Press, New York.
Stanbridge, Wm. Edward, 1857, On the Astronomy and Mythology of the Aborigines of Victoria, Proceedings of the Philosophical Institute, Melbourne.
Williamson, Ray, & Farrer, Claire, R., (Editors), 1992, Earth & Sky: Visions of the Cosmos in Native American Folklore, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tektite (accessed 30/06/16)