February 15, 2013
Today, at around 9:20 a.m. local time in Chelyabinsk, Russia, a massive 11-ton meteor burned up in the sky, triggering a sonic boom that damaged buildings and shattered windows in six cities and reportedly injured hundreds. Eyewitnesses say the meteor’s shockingly bright flash as it burned up (10 seconds into the Russia Today video above) was briefly brighter than the morning sun.
That this event happened today—the same day a 147-foot wide asteroid will whiz extremely close to the Earth at 2:26 p.m. EST—seems to be a coincidence of astronomical proportions, as experts say the two events are entirely unrelated. But unlike the asteroid, which will cause no physical damage, the meteor’s sonic boom as it entered the atmosphere, fractured roughly 18 to 32 miles above the ground and subsequently rained fragments over the region, led to as many as 900 injuries, 31 hospitalizations and widespread damage including the collapse of a rooftop at a zinc factory .
So, what caused this massive explosion? “For one, meteors move extremely fast—faster than the speed of sound—so there’s a ton of friction being generated as it comes through the atmosphere,” says Cari Corrigan, a geologist with the Natural History Museum who specializes in meteors. “If there are any weaknesses in it already, or if there is ice that melts and leaves empty fractures—like freezing and thawing in a pothole—it could easily explode.”
To get a knotty bit of nomenclature out of the way, meteor refers to a variety of pieces of debris—made up of either rock, metal, or a mix of the two—that enter the atmosphere from outer space. Before doing so, they’re called meteoroids. Most burn up entirely during their descent, but if any intact fragments do make it to the ground, they’re called meteorites. Meteors are also called “shooting stars” because of the heat and light produced when they slam into the still atmosphere at supersonic speeds—today’s meteor was estimated to be traveling faster than 33,000 m.p.h.
The distinction between this meteor and the asteroid that will fly past us later today, according to Corrigan, is a matter of size and origin. “Asteroids are generally bigger, and they typically come from the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter,” she says. The size difference also explains why we were able to predict the arrival of the asteroid nearly a year ago, but this meteor caught us by surprise: It’s impossible to spot the smaller meteoroids up in space with our telescopes.
Meteors like the one that fell today aren’t exceedingly rare, but for one to cause this much damage is almost unheard of. “There are events like this in recorded history, but this is likely the first time it’s happened over such a populated area and this level of destruction has been documented,” Corrigan says. Notable meteors in recorded history include the Tunguska event (a 1908 explosion over a remote area in Russia that knocked down more than 80 million trees covering an area of some 830-square miles), the Benld meteorite (a small object that landed in Illinois in 1938 that punctured the roof of a car) and the Carancas impact (a 2007 meteorite that crashed in a Peruvian village and may have caused groundwater contamination).
Much larger meteorites have fallen in prehistory and been discovered much later, including the Willamette Meteorite, a 32,000-pound hunk of iron that fell millennia ago and was transported to Oregon during the last ice age. The largest meteorite ever discovered in North America, it is now part of the collections of the Natural History Museum.
Early reports suggest that remnants of the meteor have fallen into a reservoir near the town of Chebarkul; testing on these meteorite fragments could provide more information on the object’s composition and origin. “It might be an ordinary chondrite—which is what 90 percent of the meteorites that we have are made of—or it could be something more rare,” Corrigan says.
While chondrites are made mostly of stone and result from the relatively recent breakup of asteroids, iron meteorites originate from the cores of more ancient asteroids, and even rarer types come from debris broken off from the moon or Mars. ”Every meteorite that we get is another piece of the puzzle,” says Corrigan. “They’re clues towards how the solar system and Earth were formed.”
January 28, 2013
Smithsonian museums in the Washington, D.C. area as well as the National Zoo will open at noon Monday, due to inclement weather.
An early morning round of freezing rain left roads slick with ice as federal workers and schools around the area got off to a slow start. Canada would like to remind us, via Huffington Post, that cold weather has some perks too, eh? Like making it more difficult for some viruses and bacteria to live. Plus you can effectively “wash” your bed linens by hanging them out in the cold. We’d recommend waiting for the rain to stop, though, before you give that a try.
January 25, 2013
From decorative arts to religious stories to regional recipes, orchids figure prominently in the cultures of Latin America. The Aztecs were said to value vanilla–made from the seed pods of a vining orchid–so highly that it was used to pay taxes. Early instruments were held together by glue made from the flowers. And some tortilla recipes called for Stanhopea blooms.
Representing their origins in Latin America, hundreds of orchids will be on display as part of the Natural History Museum’s “Orchids of Latin America” exhibit, opening January 26.
Complete with a Mexican plaza and a winding path through beds of the exotic flowers, the exhibit will feature nearly 600 flowers with a twice-weekly rotation to keep the blooms fresh. The show offers a warm escape from the bitter winter and a chance to see the flowers that were said to aid Montezuma in his encounters with his wives or that are still a featured part of religious ceremonies.
Orchids of Latin America is on view at the National Museum of Natural History through April 21, 2013.
January 23, 2013
Two new species identified recently from 46 million-year-old fossils in northwestern Montana confirm that in all their years of existence, mosquitoes have changed very little. Turns out, they’ve been sucking blood even earlier, in fact 90 million years ago, with some fossils indicating a species that had mouth parts strong enough that the tiny insects could even feed on dinosaurs.
“They have been very successful at this little niche they have where they feed on animals,” says volunteer researcher Dale Greenwalt from the Natural History Museum. “In fact, there are species of mosquitoes that sort of specialize in sucking blood from frogs and there’s always been things around, even for the last 46 million years or longer, that have blood in their veins that can act as hosts for the mosquitoes.”
For the past five summers at the Kishenehn Basin site in Montana, Greenwalt’s field research has helped produce some of the smallest fossils of insects in the world. The ancient lakebed, roughly 100 miles long, actually derives its name from a nearby creek with the Kutenai Native American word meaning “no good.” Greenwalt says it’s just the opposite. “For some reason,” he says, “in this particular site, the conditions were absolutely perfect for the finely detailed preservation of these really tiny insects.”
Fairy wasps, for example, are “so tiny that they lay their eggs inside the eggs of other insects.” Greenwalt says, “The year before last, I collaborated with a scientist in Canada who described several new species of these fairy wasps from the shale in Montana.”
Particularly unique is that these fossils have been recorded in shale, rather than amber, which is typically how small insects are best preserved. Greenwalt says you need the perfect storm of a thin layer of fine-grained sediment, lack of oxygen and speedy process to freeze the insects in time. Collaborating with experts from around the world, Greenwalt has been able to identify the only shale fossils for some insects and many represent the smallest fossil ever found for that species, from wasps to beetles.
With 35 mosquito fossils recorded from the site, Greenwalt says, “The mosquitos were unique because we have so many of them and they were so exquisitely preserved.”
Ralph Harbach from London’s Natural History Museum was able to use the fossils to describe two new species, starting first by identifying them as being from the Culiseta genus. Greenwalt says, “These are the first fossil mosquitoes ever described from that genus and he was able to identify them in part as being in the genus based on a group of tiny little hairs at the base of the wing.”
Then, he says, “you make the assumption, that given that it’s 46 million years old, it has to be a different species because we just don’t think that one single species could survive for 46 million years.” Most are estimated to live one to two million years, ten at the most, he says. But, as the fossils show, even in all that time, the changes have been few. “They’re so similar to what we have around today,” says Greenwalt. He doesn’t think the parasitic creature will be going anywhere anytime soon.
Greenwalt’s work has produced around 5,000 pieces of rock representing 14 different orders of insects, which will be organized and added to the Natural History Museum’s collections.
January 21, 2013
Inauguration day, it’s finally here, along with millions of visitors looking to take in some uniquely D.C.-culture. While our special presidents tour from our visitors guide app will keep you exploring in your spare-time, this post is all about the when, where and how of January 21. Plus, a few select events happening around the Smithsonian, you know, in between the whole inauguration thing.
On Inauguration Day, January 21, Smithsonian museums on the National Mall are open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. A few museums will open early—the Castle opens at 7:30 a.m., Sackler Gallery, Freer Gallery, Hirshhorn and African Art open at 8 a.m. Mall entrances on the south side will be closed. Visitors will be asked to use the Independence Ave. entrances.
The American Indian Museum and the Renwick Gallery are closed January 21.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are open from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The Luce Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Lunder Conservation Center will be closed Sunday, January 20.
Most streets around the National Mall—including Independence and Constitution avenues and Jefferson and Madison drives—will be closed Monday, January 21.
The Archives, Smithsonian and Mt. Vernon Square stations will be closed Sunday, January 20 to Monday, January 21, midnight to 5:30 p.m. All other stations will open Monday, January 21 at 4 a.m.
No Parking on the National Mall after 6 p.m. on Sunday, January 20.
All museums, open to the public during designated hours, have accessible restrooms
Live broadcast of the swearing-in ceremony in Flag Hall in American History Museum, beginning at 11:30 a.m. A live broadcast will also begin at 11:30 a.m. at the African Art Museum.
Inaugural theme walk-in tours, Monday, January 21, 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. at the American Art Museum.
For “Super Sonic Weekend: Sounds and Songs of the American Presidency” (all day Monday), Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is streaming audio recordings related to the American presidency, from a 1757 campaign song used by George Washington in his first race for the Virginia House of Burgesses, to presidential speeches and much more.
Tour America’s Presidents at the National Portrait Gallery at 1:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.
At the National Portrait Gallery: ”Portrait of President Barack Obama” The original artwork, a hand-finished collage by artist Shepard Fairey, from President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign is on view January 19 – 22. The work is joined by two larger-than-life tapestry portraits of the president by artist Chuck Close.
At the American Indian Museum: ”A Century Ago: They Came as Sovereign Leaders” This photo exhibition focuses on President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade and the six great chiefs who participated in the parade arriving with their own purposes in mind and representing the needs of their people.
At the National Museum of African American History and Culture Gallery in the American History Museum: Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963″ In 2013 the country will commemorate two events that changed the course of the nation-the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 1963 March on Washington. Standing as milestone moments in the grand sweep of American history, these achievements were the culmination of decades of struggles by individuals – both famous and unknown – who believed in the American promise that this nation was dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”