Saturday, July 12, 2008

Flaming saucer from the sky

- Time raises possibility of Israel satellite debris in Kurseong

July 11: Comrade Karat, while you were lost in the nuclear draft last evening, an “intruder” from America’s bosom buddy Israel — of all places — may have infiltrated the communist bastion called Bengal from the sky.

Hear it from Hari Bahadur Chettri of Kurseong: “I was drinking tea when I spotted a glowing red object falling from the sky. It crashed near my cattle shed with a hissing sound. The heat was so much that the tin wall of the cattle shed also turned red.”

The celestial object, around two feet wide and 18 inches high, had not been identified till late tonight.

But the time of the landing — 6.30pm — raises a tantalising possibility. A US agency had forecast that chunks of a stage-3 rocket body of Shavit, an Israeli launch vehicle, would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere around the same time. Shavit’s trajectory would have taken it over India.

The Centre for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies in Los Angeles had predicted the re-entry of parts of the rocket body on July 10 at 13:28 Universal Time (6.28pm in India). The error margin had been kept at 75 minutes.

Whether the object is part of that debris or not, it has caused considerable excitement in the landing site, Lower Sirubari Busty, 4km from Kurseong town. No one was injured, nor was Chettri’s house damaged but the spot where the object hit the ground had a crater almost six inches deep, suggesting it came crashing at very high speed.

Residents flocked to take a look at the “metal-like” object which they described as round, and having fibres and many concentric layers inside. The thickness of the “metal” was said to be around half an inch.

Chettri said the object looked “silvery” after cooling last night. It turned “black” this morning, with Chettri saying it could be because of the overnight rain.

According to the US centre for debris studies, the intense heat caused by friction with the atmosphere leads to melting, vaporisation or disintegration of objects coming back to Earth. But a component of a satellite or a rocket might be intact if its melting point is high enough and if its shape allows it to lose heat rapidly, the centre said.

At least 20 objects that were once parts of rockets or satellites have fallen back since January 2008, according to the centre for orbital and debris studies, which has catalogued each re-entry and its expected path. The stage-3 of the Shavit rocket had been launched from Israel’s Palmachim Air Force Base on June 10 last year.

Back in Lower Sirubari, many were more relieved than curious. “This is the first time we have seen such an object. It was a scary moment for us but we were lucky no one was injured. We did not allow the police to take away the object initially as we wanted higher-ups in the administration to see it first,” said Kiran Rai.

The district administration said it would take the object to Kurseong police station and send it to “technical experts” for identification.

“The object must have fallen from space. We can’t confirm what it is, though. We have told the district magistrate,” said Manish Verma, the Kurseong block development officer.