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Meteoritic dust from the atmospheric disintegration of a large meteoroid


Much of the mass of most meteoroids entering the Earth's atmosphere is consumed in the process of ablation. Larger meteoroids (> 10 cm), which in some cases reach the ground as meteorites, typically have survival fractions near 1–25 per cent of their initial mass1. The fate of the remaining ablated material is unclear, but theory suggests that much of it should recondense through coagulation as nanometre-sized particles2. No direct measurements of such meteoric ‘smoke’ have hitherto been made3. Here we report the disintegration of one of the largest meteoroids to have entered the Earth's atmosphere during the past decade, and show that the dominant contribution to the mass of the residual atmospheric aerosol was in the form of micrometre-sized particles. This result is contrary to the usual view that most of the material in large meteoroids is efficiently converted to particles of much smaller size through ablation4. Assuming that our observations are of a typical event, we suggest that large meteoroids provide the dominant source of micrometre-sized meteoritic dust at the Earth's surface over long timescales.

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Figure 1: Optical light curve for the 03 Sep 2004 fireball as measured by DoE space-based sensors.
Figure 2: The first unambiguous detection of lidar backscatter from the dust trail of a large meteoroid.
Figure 3: Comparison between the time–altitude characteristics of the lidar-detected aerosols and the predictions of a sedimentation model.
Figure 4: Evidence that the lidar backscatter was due to non-spherical particles.


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The Davis lidar observations are funded by the Department of the Environment and Heritage of the Australian Government. We thank D. McCormack and R. L. Hawkes for discussions. This work was supported in part by the Canada Research Chair programme, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and The Aerospace Corporation's Independent Research and Development programme.Author Contributions A.R.K. developed the Davis lidar instrument, identified and analysed the bolide event in the lidar observations and co-wrote this Letter. P.G.B. helped interpret global infrasound network data, performed entry modelling and co-wrote this Letter. W.N.E. analysed global infrasound network data. D.O.R. performed entry modelling and helped interpret the global infrasound network. D.W.P, R.E.S., E.T. and B.B.Y. analysed Department of Defense and Department of Energy satellite data. J.Z. undertook initial and follow-up lidar observations, and assisted with data analysis.

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Correspondence to Andrew R. Klekociuk.

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Supplementary Table

This table provides the atmospheric trajectory and heliocentric orbit parameters for the 03 Sep 2004 fireball. Word Doc (36kb) (DOC 36 kb)

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Klekociuk, A., Brown, P., Pack, D. et al. Meteoritic dust from the atmospheric disintegration of a large meteoroid. Nature 436, 1132–1135 (2005).

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