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Asteroid entry
An artist’s conception shows an asteroid entering Earth’s atmosphere. (Credit: NASA)

Death by meteorite is a common theme in science-fiction movies, but in real life, the chances of being done in by a falling space rock are virtually nil. That’s what makes the reports about the death of Indian bus driver V. Kamaraj in an apparent meteorite strike so remarkable.

Some would argue that the case is unprecedented in modern history – but as usual, that depends on how precisely you define the precedents.

First, the reports: NDTV quotes officials as saying that a blast at Bharathidasan Engineering College, in Natrampalli in India’s Tamil Nadu state, killed Kamaraj and injured three others on Saturday at Bharathidasan Engineering College. A 2-foot-deep crater was left in the ground, and the shock wave shattered windshields and window panes around the site.

At first, the explosion was blamed a “drone-like” flying object or a bomb. But on Sunday, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa was quoted as saying that a meteorite caused the blast. About $1,475 (100,000 rupees) in relief was paid out to Kamaraj’s family, and $370 was paid to each of the injured, NDTV quoted the minister as saying. Authorities said they recovered what appears to be a piece of the meteorite, but found no trace of explosives. Scientists still have to verify that the debris actually came from space.

“This is the first time in the history of meteorites falling that somebody died because of a meteorite falling and its consequences, in India or anywhere else,” The Telegraph quoted S.V.S. Murty of India’s Physical Research Laboratory as saying.

NASA’s review of the record agrees with Murty’s assessment. The space agency says “no human in the past 1,000 years is known to have been killed by a meteorite or by the effects of one impacting.” Hundreds of people were injured by flying glass from Russia’s Chelyabinsk meteor blast, which occurred nearly three years ago, but no deaths were directly attributed to that particular meteorite fall.

The claim gets murkier if you go further back in history: A list of meteorite falls maintained by the International Comet Quarterly mentions a few reports of fatalities, including two people who may have been killed by the 1908 Tunguska blast over Russia. But the documentation behind those reports is poor.

There’s no question that last weekend’s fatality could serve as the best-documented case of death by meteorite. And experts say it’s only a matter of time before we face an asteroid threat on the scale of the catastrophic blast that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Fortunately, those experts are working on ways to anticipate the threat. Stay tuned for much more on the subject when the organizers of Asteroid Day conduct a news conference on Tuesday. You can watch it on YouTube at 6 a.m. PT.

Hat tip to Ars Technica’s Eric Berger and David Ropeik.

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