The mysterious Tunguska explosion of 1908
The region surrounding the Podkamennaya Tunguska River is a desolate place, even by Siberian standards, with the nearest big city of Krasnoyarsk (3,352 kilometers east of Moscow) located 640 kilometers to the south. On June 30, 1908, an object, which would eventually become known as the Tunguska meteorite, flew through the air and exploded in the sky above the Podkamennaya Tunguska River. In this remote location, not one single person was located at the site of the explosion's epicenter.
This was a fortunate occurrence because scientists estimate that the explosion was equal to 10-40 megatons of TNT, a blast as powerful as a hydrogen bomb. The bang destroyed the forest completely, knocking down trees within a 40-kilometer radius of its epicenter. Explosions were heard in settlements as far as 800 kilometers away and the ground shook. The next day, magnetic storms raged throughout the entire Northern Hemisphere and strange flares, silvery clouds and flashes of lightning were observed throughout the sky.
Could it be the end of the world or the beginning of a war?
The main witnesses of this strange phenomenon were indigenous Evenks hunters and the Siberians who lived in the surrounding villages. The hunters had been wandering through the taiga but were lucky enough to be a safe distance away from the site of the impact. Those who witnessed the event spoke of a "fiery ball" that flew through the sky, from the southeast to the northwest, and recalled the sound of "gunshots" and "thunder" from far away. The newspaper Sibir wrote about the reactions of the people from a settlement located 200 kilometers from the blast: "Everyone in the settlement gathered in the streets in fear and panic. The women were crying. Everyone thought it was the end of the world."
The researcher Innokenty Suslov cites the accounts of two Evenk brothers, Chuchancha and Chekaren, from the Shanyagir clan, whose tent was located only 20 kilometers from the epicenter on that day. "The trees are falling, their needles are burning, the branches are burning, my herd of reindeer is burning. All around there is smoke, my eyes hurt. It is so hot, you could burn. This morning was sunny, there were no clouds, the sun shone brightly, as always, and then, suddenly, a second sun appeared!" The brothers' tent was destroyed by the blast and, although they suffered burns, they both survived.
The Siberian peasants and Evenks people could not understand what had happened. In addition to mystical theories (Christians believed that it was the Second Coming of Christ, while the pagan Evenks thought it was the arrival of the thunder god, Agda), there were also political explanations. Some people believed it was the beginning of a second Russo-Japanese War (that was had ended just three years earlier, in 1905). The first serious expedition of scientists wasn’t sent to study the Tunguska anomaly until 1927, during the Soviet era.
The visitor from space didn’t leave a trace
This phenomenon is referred to as the Tunguska meteorite, though there is no proof that the fallen celestial body was actually a meteorite. Debates about the true nature of the object continue to this day. This is due to the fact that not one expedition examining the site of the explosion has been able to locate a crater, which would have been enormous, or any other residual material that can be proven to have come from the blast. It seems this gigantic celestial body exploded and disappeared almost without a trace.
Today, there are two main theories about this object that exploded over the Podkamennaya Tunguska River. The first theory is that it was a stone meteorite, and the other is that it was an ice comet. Physicist Gennady Bybin, who has studied the Tunguska anomaly for 30 years, supports the theory that it was an ice comet because the object left no remaining debris or crater, indicating that the pressure and heat of the Earth's atmosphere completely destroyed the comet upon entry.
There is also a theory that the meteorite did leave a trace. In 2012, Italian researchers, from the University of Bologna, posited that the small Lake Cheko, located near the supposed epicenter of the explosion, is the crater. However, in early 2016, a group of Russian scientists determined that the lake had actually been in existence since before the fall of the meteorite.
Another theory, proposed by the physicist Ivan Murzinov, from the Tsiolkovsky Russian Academy of Cosmonautics, argues that the meteorite entered the Earth's atmosphere at such an angle that it did not hit the ground at all but continued to move tangentially. After the explosion, these fragments could have been scattered thousands of kilometers from the epicenter, says Murzinov,"falling into the Atlantic Ocean or even returning to space."
A cornucopia of theories
While most scientists are still racking their brains about whether it was a meteorite or a comet, there are alternative opinions that have been suggested. There is a theory that the event was caused by aliens and, in 1946, science-fiction writer Alexander Kazantsev published the story Explosion, which describes an alien spaceship with a nuclear engine exploding over Tunguska. Scientists, however, remain skeptical that extraterrestrial civilizations played any part in the Tunguska anomaly.
However, there is an even more exotic theory. A small number of researchers believe that the Tunguska meteorite was actually a lump of antimatter, which is why it left no trace after releasing its energy upon contact with the Earth. Since little is known about antimatter today, it is still impossible to convincingly confirm or deny this theory.
Others believe that the inventor Nikola Tesla was responsible for this explosion in the sky. This version posits that, from his American laboratory, he launched a powerful "energetic shot" towards the region of Alaska, in order to test a new invention but "missed." According to this theory, Tesla's experiment failed and, horrified by the destructive results, he chose to stay silent about his involvement.
"About 30 percent of researchers believe that this was a meteorite, the same amount think that it was a comet and 40 percent support a range of diverse hypotheses, including phantasmagorical ones," Ivan Murzinov said, summing up the range of scientific opinions on the Tunguska anomaly. More than a century after the explosion, it seems we do not have a much better understanding of what happened over the Podkamennaya Tunguska River than those peasants and hunters who witnessed the "fiery ball."
This article is part of the Russian X-Files series, in which RBTH explores enigmas, mysteries and anomalies related to Russia.