Sun Falls Down

Russian Asteroids from the Ground Up

by by Becca Millstein

“I looked up at the sky and suddenly the sky lit up with a bright light and something that looked like the sun fell somewhere to the south of Yekaterinburg,” Sergei Bobunets, 2013, Chelyabinsk, Russia

“The morning was sunny, there were no clouds, our Sun was shining brightly as usual, and suddenly there came a second one!” Chuchan of the Shanyagir tribe, 1926, Tunguska, Russia

Night did not fall over Western Europe for six days in the summer of 1908. On the night of June 30, 1908, a strange fire was reported to have appeared on the northern horizon of Antwerp, Belgium. On the same night, Vart Land, a Stockholm evening newspaper, reported a “strange illumination” which spread across its midnight sky. Two days later The Times of London described a “strange light in the sky” which two sisters living in Huntingdon, England had observed at midnight on July 2. The light ruddied European skies for the next six days, filling the headlines beginning in Scandinavia and ending in America on the New York Times front page: “LIKE DAWN AT MIDNIGHT: LONDON SKY SEES SKY BLUE AND CLOUDS TIPPED WITH PINK.” Scientists from all corners of the world made wild conjectures as to the source of the glow. Some hypothesized that the light was caused by “auroral displays,” others, “important changes on the sun’s surface, causing electrical discharges.” The “remarkable afterglow” flickered day after day, maddening meteorologists, astrologists, astronomers and light sleepers with its unexplained, unceasing glare. The glow illuminated Ireland, England, and Scotland as citizens easily read newspapers outdoors in the nighttime. It remained hovering as farmers in the north of England plowed all night in their fields to prepare for a coming storm. Evening darkness and it’s full moon gradually eclipsed the bright blush on June 5th. A thorough explanation for the perennial dawn did not arrive until November 6, 1927.


Walk far enough through the forest surrounding the Stony Tunguska River in middle of Siberia and you will reach a wide clearing. The clearing is shaped in the rough outline of a butterfly and the trees lining the clearing are laying on the ground with their unearthed roots spreading towards you and their tops pointing into the woods. Fly above the forest that covers the middle of Siberia and you’ll pass over a blighted garden of horizontal, leafless trees repelling like iron flakes from a magnetic pole. Six miles above the forest in the middle of Siberia, you will occupy the space of sky that, 104 years ago, cradled the golden blast of the largest asteroid to ever approach the Earth.

The journey through the forest was first attempted by Russian meteorologist Leonid Alekseyevich Kulik in 1921, under the charge of the Soviet Union. After World War I, Kulik was plucked from his position at the Mineralogical Museum in Leningrad, then St. Petersburg, and chosen by the USSR to lead an expedition to locate and study the meteorites that had fallen within the boundaries of the Soviet Union. While preparing for his expedition, Kulik came across a highly inaccurate, highly curious account of a meteor explosion in Tunguska, Siberia in 1908:

...a huge meteorite is said to have fallen in Tomsk several sagenes [roughly ten meters] from the railway line near Filimonovo junction and less then 11 versts [roughly seven miles] from Kansk. Its fall was accompanied by a frightful roar and a deafening crash, which was heard more than 40 versts away. The passengers of a train approaching the junction at the time were struck by the unusual noise. The driver stopped the train and the passengers poured out to examine the fallen object, but they were unable to study the meteorite closely because it was red hot.

This was the first that Kulik, a leading meteorologist, had heard of the Tunguska Event. Puzzled by its lack of publicity, he continued his search through local newspapers from the summer of 1908 in hopes of finding a more illuminating description. He found that the Siberian newspapers revealed hardly more insight into the event than did those of the UK or USA. Kulik finally came across a detailed account of a paper dated July 26, 1908 describing a “subterranean shock which caused buildings to tremble,” and quoted eyewitnesses who said, “before the first bangs were heard a heavenly body of fiery appearance cut across the sky from south to north... neither its size nor shape could be made out owing to its speed and particularly its unexpectedness.” From these accounts, Kulik was able to estimate the enormity of the asteroid and began his expedition searching for the site of the Tunguska impact.

When Kulik made his first visit to Tunguska in 1927, he attempted to interview some of the Evenki, an indigenous Siberian people, and was met with silence. When Kulik asked Evenki Ilya Potapovich, an Evenki who had previously been questioned about the event by ethnographer I.M. Suslov, to bring him to the site of the fallen asteroid, Potapovich refused, telling Kulik that none were allowed in the “thunder god’s home.” In the eyes of the Evenki, the meteorite came as a punishment from Odgy, their god of thunder, and they were desperate to conceal and protect the area of the impact. They regarded the “thunder”— which set fire to their forest, slayed thousands of reindeer, and decimated their food storage—a visitation of Odgy’s wrath to their forest. Almost 20 years had passed since the event and none of the Evenki had approached the clearing in the woods. But Potapopvich could not resist when Kulik offered him flour, cloth and building materials, and the two, along with Kulik’s research team, set off to look for the site. For five days they journeyed deeper into the Siberian forest, and on March 27, 1927,  Kulik climbed Shakrama Mountain to set eyes upon the barren, butterfly-winged valley.

Kulik was astounded by the odd pattern and direction of the stripped trees and was eager to explore, but the Evenki guides would allow him to go no further. The skeletal forest was sacred, and if the Evenki allowed it to be trespassed upon, Odgy would again curse them with thunder. Kulik had no choice but to take a good, long look from above, and turn around to head home.


Three weeks ago on, February 15th, and less than 1,500 miles away from Tunguska, the strange light returned to Russia once again. This time, however, there was no mystery as to it’s source. Hundreds of car dashboard cameras, surveillance tapes, and cell phone video cameras captured the flaming trajectory of an asteroid soaring above Chelyabinsk, Russia. The asteroid entered the atmosphere at 40,000 mph and, before the atmosphere absorbed most of the object’s energy, had 20 to 30 times more kinetic energy than the atomic bombs detonated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 1,500 people were injured by the shattering of windows, 7,200 buildings were damaged.  And in the eager eyes of Natalia Gritsay, a regional tourism official, “Space sent [Chelyabinsk] a gift.”

Plans for a “Meteor Disneyland” are currently being drawn up by the tourism committee, headed by Chelyabinsk mayor Andrei Orlov. At an emergency brainstorming meeting, Orlov gesticulated wildly as he explained his vision of a lakeside attraction where visitors could pay to dive for pieces of the sunken asteroid. Other suggestions included an “annual cosmic music and fireworks festival” and a “pyramid with a beacon at its tip that floats on the lake.” Gritsay declared, looking contentedly over the flock of visitors pawing through the snow for asteroid bits, “We need our own Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty.”

On the morning of June 30, 1908, S. Semenov, a Evenki farmer, watched the sky split in two from his porch. He felt the fire on his skin and clothes. The force of the explosion threw him from the porch and onto the shuddering ground. Chuchan, of the Shanyagir tribe, was sleeping by the river and was woken by his brother, “Can you hear all the birds flying overhead?” There were very few close-range witnesses to the largest asteroid event to ever occur on civilized Earth and those that saw did not dig up their buried recollections until many years later. The unearthly power and light of the asteroid roped and tightened around their voices and preserved their memories in a mixture of fear and awe. The Evenki respected the “heavenly body” that wreaked havoc on their land, understanding that its force was untamable. They did not question its source but declared it divine and the site of its invasion unvisitable.

In Chelyabinsk on February 15th, 2013, they captured the strange light. They captured it on their cameras and they captured pieces of it in their hands. They captured it in their city meetings when they decided that the world would know Chelyabinsk as the city that owned and celebrated the second sun. An asteroid of this magnitude can be predicted to enter our atmosphere roughly every one hundred years. In a hundred years we may capture the objects before they capture us and never see the fire burn through the sky again. In a hundred years, in the middle of the Siberian forest of rootless trees, the butterfly patch will remain unexplored, unstepped upon, eternally marked upon the space where a strange light once fell.

BECCA MILLSTEIN B’13 is a cosmic music festival.