Meteorite impacts in Ensisheim 529 years ago in the oldest impact on record

November 7, 2021 marks 529 years from the commonly accepted date that a heavy stony meteorite crashed in present-day France in what is one of the oldest known meteorite impacts on Earth in recorded history.

Now known as the Ensisheim meteorite, the object crashed into the ground outside Ensisheim in the Alsace region, forming an impact crater about 1 meter deep. No one was injured in the impact, which was said to have been witnessed by a child, but word soon spread throughout the city.

The meteor itself weighed 127 kilograms and was classified as an ordinary chondrite, the most common type of meteor. This classification means that it has a stony composition and was never modified before separating from its parent asteroid. There are tens of thousands of known meteorites of this type, so in theory the Ensisheim meteorite itself shouldn’t stick out too much.

But what makes this meteorite so significant is not just that it impacted and its impact was recorded, but the influence it had on later historical events.

The meteor quickly turned into a divine omen, although the exact meaning was unclear at the time. Regardless, it was instantly seen as divine, causing the people of Ensisheim to quickly begin breaking parts to use as good luck charms, although the local chief magistrate quickly stopped him, taking him to the local parish church. .

A portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, by artist Albrecht Dürer in 1519. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The meaning of the omen soon solidified at the end of the month, when Maximilian I, then king of the Romans and later to become Holy Roman Emperor, arrived in Enshisheim. Maximilian was on his way to fight the French, but the stone had fascinated him. He and his advisers soon declared it a holy omen, signifying God’s favor towards Maximilian. This was aided by the shape of the meteor, described by many as triangular, much like the Greek letter Delta, which was compared to the sign of the Holy Trinity.

The story of the meteor soon spread throughout Europe. This was due in part to two reasons. One of them was the sheer volume of the meteorite impact, with contemporary sources indicating that it had been heard at least 100 miles away, as observed in a Academic article from 1992.

But even more important was that it was printed and disseminated. The impact was the first known meteorite impact after the printing press boom. As such, the detailed news was able to spread quickly. Before long, the news spread to various cities with the help of brochures containing the poet Sebastian Brant’s writings on the impact, as well as dramatic illustrations.

The dramatic style of the writing of these verses, written in Latin and German, describes the impressive sight of the meteorite, the powerful sound that made the impact and the depth and meaning it has for Maximilian and, more importantly, for the French. .

“He instilled fear in the French,” says a translation of the German poem. “In truth, I say, this means a special plague on these people.”

“It sounded in the ears of the Burgundians and made the French tremble,” says a Latin translation of the poem. “Whatever it is, I think it heralds a great future event; this, I pray, may defeat our fearsome enemies.”

The meteorite itself was preserved in Ensisheim, kept in the church where an attached inscription reads the phrase in Latin: In this stone many many, all something, enough (Many have spoken of this stone, all have said something, no one has said enough). However, as the Meteorite Society of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, it was retired during the French Revolution and sent to a museum for 10 years before being sent back to Ensisheim, although its size was drastically reduced after parts removed by many people. Today, the meteorite weighs just 53,831 kilograms and is currently on display at the city’s Musée de la Régence.

The remains of the Ensisheim meteorite.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons)The remains of the Ensisheim meteorite. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Although this meteor did not cause serious permanent damage, the dangers of such an impact remain serious.

The last significant known asteroid impact was on February 15, 2013, when an asteroid exploded in midair over Chelyabinsk, Russia. This asteroid was 17 meters wide and, although it did not cause casualties, the shock wave from the explosion shattered windows in six different Russian cities and caused 1,500 people to need medical attention.

The destructive nature of asteroids, even small ones, is well known to experts, with space agencies around the world monitoring potential catastrophic impacts, as well as investigating potential means to stop them.

One method of possibly stopping an asteroid impact is by using deflection, which would mean launching something to slightly alter its trajectory.

In simple terms, it means hitting an asteroid with a rocket with enough speed to change its direction by a fraction of a percentage.

However, other measures have also been considered, such as disruption, that is, the destruction of the asteroid, but at this time, they remain hypothetical.

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