Athletes who win gold in Sochi Winter Olympics on February 15 will take away something even more valuable – a fragment of the Russian fireball that blew up over Chelyabinsk, Russia on the same day a year ago.
“We will hand out our medals to all the athletes who will win gold on that day, because both the meteorite strike and the Olympic Games are global events,” said Alexei Betekhtin, culture minister for the Chelyabinsk region.
The Chelyabinsk fall, the largest witnessed meteorite fall in over 100 years, exploded with 20-30 times the force of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima at an altitude of just 14.5 miles (23 km). Before it detonated into thousands of mostly gravel-sized meteorites and dust, it’s estimate the incoming meteoroid was as tall as a five-story building. The shock wave from the explosion shattered windows up and down the city, injuring nearly 1,500 people.
The largest fragment, weighing 1,442 lbs. (654 kg), punched a hole in the ice of Lake Chebarkul. Divers raised it from the bottom muck on Oct. 16 last year and rafted it ashore, where scientists and excited onlookers watched as the massive space rock was hoisted onto a scale and promptly broke into three pieces. Even the scale broke from the weight.
A chip of Chelyabinsk will be affixed to each of the special medals; 10 will go to the gold medallists and another 40 will be sold to private collectors.
The lucky gold medal winners will received the cosmically-inspired medals on February 15 for the following events: men’s 1,500 meter speed skating, the women’s 1,000 meters and the men’s 1,500 short track, the women’s cross-country skiing relay, the men’s K-125 ski jump, the women’s super-giant slalom and men’s skeleton events.
“We are made of star stuff,” as the late Carl Sagan once said. While the special medals bear space rocks billions of years old, consider the gold itself. Once thought to have been forged in supernovae explosions, recent research has shown that most gold is created when neutron stars collide and merge.
Neutron stars are the remnant collapsed cores of supergiant stars after they explode as supernovae. Although most of the material in the collisions disappears down a newly-formed black hole, some of it’s ejected at high speed into space where neutrons crashing into neutrons build heavy elements like gold and platinum.
What about the silver medals and the copper used in the bronze? Those elements formed in the tremendous energy liberated in long-ago supernovae blasts. So while only a few lucky ones will get a meteorite medal, all winners will receive souvenirs from the most cataclysmic events in the known universe.