One step forward to the solution of the Tunguska mystery
Istituto TeSRE - CNR, (Bologna, Italy) Ch. Froeschlй,
P. Michel Observatoire de la Cфte d'Azur, (Nice, France)
Dipartimento di Fisica, Universitа di Bologna and INFN Sezione di Bologna, (Bologna, Italy)
Obserwatorium Astronomiczne Universytetu A. Mickiewicza, (Poznan, Poland)
Still today, after about one century, the Tunguska event of 30 June 1908 continues to be the best--known example of impact hazard, even though the debate on the nature of the cosmic body that caused the disaster is not concluded yet. Several expeditions went to Siberia to collect data and samples, but none of them succeeded in finding the definite proof, which favors the hypothesis of a comet or an asteroid. In the end of July 1999, an Italian Scientific Expedition, organized by the University of Bologna with the collaboration of researchers from the Turin Astronomical Observatory and the CNR Institute of Marine Geology, went to Siberia to study the Cheko lake, a little sheet of water at about 8 km North the epicenter. Cores taken from the bottom of the lake are still under analysis, but early results were presented at the Svalbard meeting of September 2001 (check title). But in the Tunguska99 group is present also a little team of theoreticians, who work to strengthen this field research with theoretical studies and modeling. The recent work published on Astronomy and Astrophysics (*) contains the results of more than two years of theoretical studies and numerical modeling, started thanks to an idea of the late Paolo Farinella, to whom the paper is dedicated.
We started by analyzing the available literature on the argument in order to generate a set of possible atmospheric trajectories. Even though some authors suggested the presence of multiple explosions, in absence of sure conclusions we adopted, as usually, that the event was caused by one single explosion. If there were more than one body falling to Earth, like for example the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, all the orbits would be close to each other, with differences much smaller than the uncertainties in the available parameters.
In addition to the parameters collected from the literature, we also propose a study on the fragmentation of a cosmic body in the Earth atmosphere, from which it appears clear that only a body with medium-high mechanical strength could explode at 5-10 km height over the Siberian taigа.
At the end of this process, we have found two main sets of atmospheric trajectories: (i)low inclination (3°-5°) and low speed (14-16 km/s); (ii)high inclination (15°-28°) and high speed (30-32 km/s). while the azimuth was between 97° and 127° for both sets.
From these two sets, we calculated the possible orbits, by defining a grid in azimuth, height, and speed such that the steps were 5°, 0.5°, and 0.5 km/s respectively. We obtained 1120 orbits, from which 30 were excluded because they were hyperbolic. From the remaining set of 1090 orbits, we cut also 204 bodies with semimajor axis greater than 4.2 AU. The reason of this second rejection is because we used the model by Bottke and colleagues (2000, 2001) to analyze the possible sources of the available orbits. This is a steady state model of the orbital and absolute magnitude distributions of the NEO (Near Earth Objects) population, which is the best fit to the observed absolute magnitude distribution of NEO (limited to H < 18). The model is limited to orbits with semimajor axis smaller than 4.2 AU and to overcome this limitation we considered, when possible, the maximum possible contribution of a cometary source.
From the analysis of the final set of 886 orbits, we conclude that 739 (83%) are from asteroidal sources, while the remaining 147 (17%) come from cometary sources. The latter result is in the range of the 10-30% of impact craters on Earth from comets evaluated by Shoemaker in 1983. The whole interplanetary dynamics analysis is also in agreement with previous results by Andreev, who also proposed an asteroidal nature for the Tunguska Cosmic Body, and by Bronshten, who considered valid the low percentage of cometary bodies, because he thought that it is not possible for an asteroid to be completely destroyed by the atmosphere and no crater, no macroscopic remnants of the Tunguska Cosmic Body were found yet.
The first novelty of our work is that the statistics is more robust (886 possible orbits) with respect to previous works. In addition, the model for the fragmentation in the Earth atmosphere can overcome the previous problems: indeed, it is known from the observations of superbolides (M < -17) that small asteroids break up when the dynamic pressure is still lower than their mechanical strength (generally the difference is about one order of magnitude). The model we proposed, which is compatible with the observational data of superbolides, allowed us to calculate the mechanical strength that the TCB would have to break up at the given height of about 8 km. The result is that only a body with medium-high mechanical strength (i.e. a carbonaceous or a stony asteroid) could fit well the available data. In addition, if the Tunguska Cosmic Body had internal cavities, something like the asteroid Mathilde (who has a density 1.3 g/cm3, very close to that of water), this can increase the efficiency of explosive fragmentation, making it possible that also an asteroid could be completely destroyed.
It is necessary to underline that our work is theoretical, even though with high details and that could say the last (theoretical) word on the Tunguska event. However, concerning the definite proof, it is necessary to wait at least for the analysis of samples collected during the expedition of July 1999.
(*) P. Farinella, L. Foschini, Ch. Froeschlй, R. Gonczi, T.J. Jopek, G. Longo, and P. Michel: Probable asteroidal origin of the Tunguska Cosmic Body. Astronomy and Astrophysics 377 (2001) 1081. For more information, preprints, and photos on the Tunguska99 Expedition please go to the web address http://www-th.bo.infn.it/tunguska/.