Trivia 013: How unlucky can you be?

Space seems like it’s a pretty busy place. Depictions of asteroid fields like in Star Wars show huge boulders flying around as dense as pigeons in a city park. Maps like purposely exaggerate the sizes of satellites in order to make them visible. In reality, things are much smaller and much further apart.

In fact, while the Earth receives over 100 tons of material from space each day, most meteors are no bigger than a grain of sand. The reason they flare so brightly is because they’re literally burning up. It’s a rare few that actually make it all the way to the ground to become a meteorite. And even if they do make it all the way down, 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. Controlled deorbits, in particular, are sent to Point Nemo, a location in the south Pacific Ocean which is the furthest possible point from land. Even if something comes in over land, things are still pretty empty. Only approximately 10% of Earth’s land area is home to 95% of the world’s population.

With all of these factors combined, it becomes pretty clear that your chances of getting struck by something from space are pretty long odds. Even when the Chinese Tiangong-1 space station was deorbited, the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee announced that the odds a person would be hit by the falling debris were “10 million times smaller than the yearly chance of being hit by lightning”. By the way, the odds you’re going to be struck by lightning in a given year is one in 500,000.

However, low odds are not the same thing as an impossibility. And in fact, there are two separate instances of people being struck by things from space.

The first occurred in 1954, in Sylacauga, Alabama. Ann Hewlett Hodges was napping on her sofa when a 10 pound meteorite crashed straight through her roof, hitting her in the side. Apart from some bad bruising, she was unharmed. More damage was probably caused by her landlady then claiming ownership of the meteorite because it fell on her property. Technically, the landlady had the legal high ground. Still, it’s a bit aggressive to claim ownership of something that literally fell on someone else. Ultimately, the Hodges ended up donating the meteorite to the Alabama Museum of Natural History.

Our second story comes 47 years later, also in the United States. Lottie Williams, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was walking in a park when she was suddenly struck by a piece of metal. She was shocked, but uninjured. Having seen a large fireball in the sky half an hour prior, she thought she had been hit by a meteorite. After many calls to various agencies, the US Space Command stated that the fireball was from a Delta II rocket body reentering the atmosphere. Later tests by NASA confirmed that the fragment was made of the same materials as the rocket.

There are other historical records of people possibly being hit (and killed) by meteorites, but these are unverified. Most of them happened so long ago that it is difficult to tell if the incidents were the result of meteors, volcanoes, or something else. Nowadays, however, NASA and other agencies monitor any rock large enough to cause significant damage to us. The odds of us being caught as unaware as the dinosaurs is very low. Still, as the Smithsonian puts it, you’re still more likely to be hit by a meteorite than to win the lottery.

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