1 October 2013, 17:37

Chelyabinsk meteor lurks in the darkness

челябинск метеорит челябинск озеро чебаркуль

The end of the search for the famous meteor that plunged into the small Chebarkul lake near the city of Chelyabinsk in the Russian Urals region is nowhere in sight. Not a single chunk of the celestial body has been retrieved for days. Divers from the Russian Aleut firm have broadened the search area as they comb the lakebed for space splinters. Andrei Orlov, the mayor of town Chebarkul, has been taking an active part in the mission to lift the meteor and even dived to the mud-covered bed of the lake. He shared his experience with the Voice of Russia.

Andrei Orlov has been deep down before. His first dive took place on February 16, the next day after the meteorite burst over the Russian city. He confesses he saw next to nothing in the pitch-black waters.

“I was creeped out. There was nothing there to see. I was wearing a 7mm-thick suit and safety equipment and was watched over by two divers. I sank ten meters deep, while the operation itself is being carried out at 18 meters. But they didn’t let me go any deeper because I had no special training. It was completely dark down there. Divers have to operate in complete darkness by touch. But the work is still going ahead.”

However, several days of intense searching yielded nothing, with skeptics claiming they might be looking for fragments in the wrong place. Andrei Orlov won’t agree:

“The meteor plunged into the lake in winter and left a hole in the ice crust. We pegged the place back then. Moreover, many experts came over to us in February, March and even in April while on magnetometry expeditions. They also took water samples. Magnetometry results of experts from Sverdlovsk, Moscow, Moscow region and the Check Republic pointed to magnetic abnormalities. One of those places is now being searched. They charted a total of four such spots. It’s hard to say if there are meteorites down there, but it is the first time such magnetic anomalies have been made known to us.”

There are several exhibitions in Chebarkul dedicated to the meteor’s fall, with one of them under way in the city’s museum of local lore. It features a small room plastered with photo wallpaper showing a winter scenery at the Chebarkul lake, with a large picture of the ice hole from the meteor stretched over the floor. A glass case in the corner holds a smaller fragment that locals found in the forest nearby and brought to the museum, its staff says.

“A group of anglers were fishing close to the spot where the meteorite hit the lake,” one of the staff, Tatiana, says. “But a fisherman sees nothing but the ice hole, they all are like that. He will hardly take a notice of anything dropping in the lake a stone’s throw away, although the sky lit up quite brightly here that day. There were no explosions. It was only that the sky all lit up. We were amazed by what the meteor burst did to Chelyabinsk. Nothing of the kind happened here, even though it hit nearby.”

The firm’s contract to lift the meteor expires on October 4, with divers hoping to retrieve everything there is to find. The eyes of Russian and foreign scientists, as well as tourists the world over, are on us now. The small town of Chebarkul instantly rose to prominence. We hope it will give boost tourism here and maybe make our town the meteorite capital of Russia, the mayor smiles.

“There have been Czeck, American, Japanese, Chinese and French people coming to us. It’s a popular destination now, although these people are only after one thing, they are all space fans. They have been frequenting the town since February 15, something our town had never seen before. Now we are trying to develop tourism infrastructure.”

The town sells all manner of meteor-themed souvenirs, from calendars and brochures on the history of chondrite meteorites to small flasks allegedly containing meteor-scented liquid, although the lid on them is fitted so tightly you can’t smell it. The town authority has meanwhile set up a buoy on the lake to mark the spot of the meteor’s “landing.” Tours to the place are offered in summer time. The rest of the year the site can only be reached by the most avid meteor-gazers since it is located a hundred meters away from the shore, and the lake itself lies in the heart of the forest.

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