Thursday, March 26, 2009

13 hours warning to meteor impact

Stunned astronomers watched a car-sized asteroid explode into a brilliant meteor shower as it crashed into Earth's atmosphere.

They then went to a Sudanese desert to pick up the pieces of the asteroid, for which they had only 13 hours warning of impact. It was the first time that scientists recovered fragments from an asteroid detected in space, according to a study published in the British journal Nature on Wednesday. “Any number of meteorites have been observed as fireballs and smoking meteor trails as they come through the atmosphere,” said co-author Douglas Rumble, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution. “But to actually see this object before it gets to the Earth's atmosphere and then follow it in - that's the unique thing.” The drama unfolded like an overheated Hollywood script, according to a reconstruction of the event by Nature.

On October 6 last year, an amateur stargazer in Arizona submitted the coordinates of an asteroid he had spotted to the Minor Planet Centre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a routine logging, one of hundreds. But the computer system mysteriously refused additional data, recalled the centre's director, Tim Spahr. “As soon as I looked at it and did an orbit manually, it was clear it was going to hit Earth,” he told the journal. The size and brightness of the asteroid - which, by this time, has been assigned the name 2008 TC3 - did not suggest danger, but Spahr followed standard safety procedure and called a NASA hotline. He also alerted the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Steve Chesley, who did a rush calculation on the asteroid's orbit. The program indicated a 100 per cent chance of impact. “I'd never seen that before in my life,” he said. The program also showed that the hurtling mass of rock would hit Earth's atmosphere - with the force of one or two kilotonnes of TNT - in less than 13 hours. Suddenly, scientists accustomed to thinking in light years found themselves scrambling in real time to track the asteroid and figure out where its fragments might land. Their chatter burned up the internet and international phone lines. “IMPACT TONIGHT!!!”, wrote physicist Mark Boslough of Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico to colleagues, Nature reported. Within minutes, it was determined that the asteroid would burst into pieces over the sparsely populated Nubian Desert in northern Sudan.

Tipped off by a meteorologist, a KLM passenger jet pilot flying from Johannesburg to Amsterdam spotted a brilliant flash about 1400km away as 2008 TC3 smashed into the atmosphere at 12,000 metres per second. Weeks later, Peter Jenniskens, an astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California and the study's lead author, was still waiting for the first report of a 2008 TC3 meteorite find. Nothing came. So Jenniskens flew to Sudan in early December and teamed up with Muawia Hamid Shaddad of Khartoum University.

Together with a small regiment of students, they headed into the desert, asking local inhabitants along the way if they had seen a ball of fire in the sky. When they zeroed in on the likely crash zone, the researchers fanned out to comb the area. In three days, they recovered 280 fragments weighing a total of several kilograms. 2008 TC3 falls into a category of very rare meteorites - accounting for less than one per cent of objects that hit Earth - called ureilites, all of which may have come from the same parent body, Rumble said. Being able to match spectral measurements of 2008 TC3 taken before it disintegrated with chemical analyses of the rock fragments should make it easier to recognize ureilite asteroids still in space, he noted.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Melbourne Shakes for the Second Time in 2 Weeks

Melbourne shook for a short spell this afternoon after an earthquake measuring 4.6 hit the city.

A spokesman for Geoscience Australia said the earthquake was recorded at 4.28pm and there were no immediate reports of damage.

In a replica of the earth tremor on March 6, the epicentre of today's quake was at Korumburra, about 90 kilometres southeast of Melbourne. The first earth tremor also measured 4.6 on the Richter scale.

People have reported feeling today's quake in the CBD, Box Hill, Footscray, Heathmont, Warrandyte, Glen Waverley, Emerald, Port Melbourne, St Kilda, Warragul and Phillip Island.

A State Emergency Services spokesman said there had so far been no reports of damage.

Rachel Waycott was working in the Austral Hotel in Korumburra when the town again shook.

She said about 15 patrons in the pub looked at each other and expected the worst as the two-storey building began to move.

"It was as bad as the last one. I was sitting in the bar and serving and the whole pub shook. I was ready to run out as you hear things about whether the next one could be a big one,'' she said.

Ms Waycott said the earthquake on May 6 had been the talk of Korumburra and locals feared it was leading to a second larger quake.

"I have felt aftershocks over the last couple of weeks ... some people haven't felt them but one was in the middle of the night and was strong enough to shake my whole house and wake me up.''

Ms Waycott said this afternoon's quake lasted up to 10 seconds and was followed by a 10-minute blackout in the town.

"It was like a rumble as if a truck or something had hit the pub and you could see the building shaking,'' she said.

Dr Craig Gedye was at the Austin Hospital in Heidelberg when he felt the room shaking.

"I felt five seconds of light shaking and then one long thump about 4.30pm,'' he said.

He said he heard wood creaking but did not believe the tremor was strong enough to have caused damage.

"It's just another little tremor like we felt the other week,'' he said.

Narre Warren resident Ginnie Giles said her entire house shook about 4.30pm.

"It was the same as the other night when it happened,'' she said.

"It was for maybe three or four seconds but it felt longer than that. Our cat was lying down and he looked around as if to say 'what was that?'.''

Charles Envall, of Korumburra, was having a relaxing afternoon reading when the tremor hit and the power went off temporarily.

"A loud, rumbling noise went for about two or three seconds, it didn't seem to be as much vibration as the last one which shook the armchairs around a bit,'' Mr Envall said.

Geoscience Australia's website crashed after reports of the quake began to flood in but is now up and running again.

Anderson's Creek Primary School teacher Leah Canale was in a portable classroom in Warrandyte when the tremor struck.

"I was sitting in my classroom and all of a sudden the filing cabinet and desk started shaking, windows started shaking,'' she said.

"I thought 'Am I going crazy or is that another earthquake?'''

Ms Canale said she was thankful her grade 5 students had already left for the day as they would have "gone crazy''.

"I live in Kew and during the last one I was sitting on the couch and fell off. This time I was standing upright but it felt about equally as strong,'' she said.

The Seismology Research Centre said an aftershock sequence is expected to continue.

There have been no reports of damage and it is unlikely an earthquake of this magnitude and depth will cause any significant damage, the centre's website said.

State Emergency Service spokesman Alan Briggs said while there had been no reports of any damage, anyone facing any problems should turn off all gas, electricity and water and call emergency services.

- - Mex Cooper with Paul Millar, Larissa Ham and AAP

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Queensland bracing for Cyclone Hamish

Communities in north and central Queensland are bracing for Category 5 Cyclone Hamish which could be more destructive than Cyclone Larry.

Hamish, upgraded to a potentially deadly Category 4 storm yesterday, had winds gusting up to 230km/h last night but early today was upgraded to a more lethal Category 5 storm.

The bureau's warning said Hamish "poses a very significant threat to coastal and island communities between Bowen and Bundaberg".

"The cyclone is expected to maintain a southeast track parallel to the coast during the next 24 to 48 hours."

Yesterday, Emergency Management Queensland coordinator-general Frank Pagano said the menacing storm, lurking off Townsville last night, could hit even harder than Larry, which devastated Innisfail in March 2006.

"This cyclone will generate winds at the centre of between 225km/h and 280km/h," he said.

Whitsundays Disaster Management Group coordinator Senior Sergeant Steve O'Connell says emergency services have prepared as well as they can in the event the cyclone does come towards the islands.
He says the next 12 hours are critical.

Whitsunday Regional Council Mayor Mike Brunker says there are strong winds in the area but no reported damage yet.

Hamish is estimated to be 155km northeast of Hayman Island and 305km east of Townsville, moving southeast at 18km/h.

Premier Anna Bligh yesterday invoked powers allowing emergency personnel to order residents to evacuate towns under threat.

She warned that several major centres -- Innisfail, Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton, Gladstone, Bundaberg and Maryborough -- were in the firing line.

"It is imperative we ensure everyone is out of the path of this extremely serious cyclone," she said.

In the Whitsundays, tourists and non-essential staff were evacuated from the smaller island resorts to the mainland and shelters on larger islands were being prepared.

Hamish will be the most severe storm to hit the region since Cyclone Ada, which devastated island resorts and left 14 people dead in January 1970.

Hamilton Island chief executive Glen Bourke said yesterday the 3000 tourists and workers were being upgraded to warning level yellow: cyclone imminent.

"We want people prepared before nightfall. We will move guests and staff to the Reef View Hotel, which has the best cyclone rating on the island," he said.

Hayman Island spokeswoman Sally Morgan said its buildings could withstand a strong cyclone and most of the 500 people there had elected to stay.

In Mackay, where householders were taping windows and stocking up on supplies, resident Alicia Keese said heavy rain had flooded some low-lying areas.

"If it gets worse, we will just hunker down at home with a mattress over our heads," she said.

Mackay had already received 148mm of rain between 10am and 2pm yesterday.

Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre deputy regional director Bruce Gunn said big systems like Hamish had a "momentum of their own" and it was too early to tell how far south it would track.

"This rain could reach as far west as Charleville," he said.

- - Samantha Healy

4.6 intensity earthquake felt across Melbourne and Victoria

Residents as far north as Bendigo and Seymour felt an earthquake hitting 4.6 on the Richter Scale that rocked Victoria last night.

Millions of Victorians felt the quake just after 9pm, with many waking to cracked walls and broken windows this morning. There was no major damage or injuries reported.

Residents of Korumburra - the South Gippsland town closest to the quake's epicentre - felt as many as five minor aftershocks, with the largest at about 3am.

Rumbles continued into the morning with many residents feeling a jolt at about 10.15am. Geoscience Australia said two of the aftershocks hit 3.1 on the Richter Scale.

The quake was the strongest in 36 years, according to Geoscience Australia.

The last time the earth shook with such force so close to Melbourne was in 1973, when a quake measuring 5 happened at Wonthaggi south-east of Melbourne.

In last night's quake, the epicentre was just north of Korumburra, 90km south-east of Melbourne, and was felt over several hundred kilometres.

State SES duty officer Tim Wiebusch said the volunteer crews spent most of the night assessing property damage across the city.

Mr Wiebusch said the size of the earthquake was significant, but only minor damage to property, mainly hairline cracking in plaster and walls, had been reported.

But he said there were dozens of calls for help from the SES late last night.

"An earthquake measuring 4.6 is certainly enough that people will get a very strong feeling of the earthquake. People in part of Gippsland have reported shaking of buildings,'' he said.

"It's certainly been quite some time since we've had a magnitude anywhere near that order.

"Specifically earthquakes in Victoria in recent years have been in the range of 2 -3.5 (on the Richter Scale).''

More aftershocks are possible today, but unlikely and SES believes the 30 calls they received last night will be the brunt of the damage.

But residents concerned about structural damange to their homes are advised to turn off gas and electricity appliances and contact the SES on 132 500.

The epicentre hit just north of Korumburra in South Gippsland, but the earthquake was powerful enough to shake buildings and cause some residents to fall off their couches in metropolitan Melbourne.

Some homes around Korumburra and Leongatha lost power for up to 10 minutes.

A Victoria Police spokeswoman said there were no reports of any injuries.

Phil Cummins, duty seismologist at Geoscience Australia, which monitors earthquake activity, confirmed the tremor measured 4.6.

"It was certainly a moderate earthquake that was likely to be felt across a wide area but is unlikely to have caused any damage, except possibly some minor damage near the epicentre,'' Mr Cummins said.

Balnarring resident Karl Rohner said the quake caused cracks in his ceiling and a broken window. He described the sensation of the quake as sitting on jelly.

Korumburra Hotel bar worker Kylie Luttrel said she thought the pub had been hit by a truck.

"We get lots of trucks through here, so when the earth started shaking, my first thought was that a truck was about to smash through,'' Ms Luttrel said.

But she said patrons remained calm, and nothing had been damaged.

"Nobody screamed, but everybody was a little anxious.''

Korumburra resident James Carter said the quake shook books off the shelves in his family home.

"There were also paintings falling off walls, power out, and the phone network down,'' Mr Carter said.

Gerry Davenport, 82, was sitting in his Scoresby home when he felt the tremor.

"I didn't know if someone had run into the house, because it was vibrating so badly,'' Mr Davenport said.

Langwarrin farmer Jenny Haig, 56, was watching TV when the windows started rattling.

"I jumped up to run to my husband when it happened, it was pretty scary,'' Ms Haig said.

Endeavour Hills resident Davide Andreotti said the episode was frightening.

"The room and coffee table started shaking for about 10 seconds,'' Mr Andreotti said.

I never thought to feel something like this in Melbourne!''

Where the quake has been reported:

Avondale Heights, Altona

Berwick, Bundoora, Bunyip, Bayswater, Bayswater North, Burwood, Boronia, Blackburn, Belgrave

Craigieburn, Camberwell, Cheltenham, Cranbourne

Druin, Dromana

Essendon, Elwood, Elsternwick

Fairfield, Frankston, Forest Hill, Ferntree Gully

Glen Waverley, Gembrook, Glenroy

Hastings, Heathmont

Ivanhoe, Inverloch

Kew, Kooweerup, Kylsythe

Lilydale, Langewarrin

Mt Evelyn, Mont Albert, Mt Martha, Mt Waverley, Malvern East, Macleod, Mooralbark, Mernda, Mt Dandenong

North Balwyn, Northcote


Pakenham, Phillip Island

Rosanna, Ringwood East, Rye, Rowville

Sunshine, South Gippsland, South Morang, Springvale, Scoresby


Wantirna South, Wonthaggi

Yarra Valley

- - Jane Metlikovec, Brigid O'Donnell and staff writers

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Vivien’s Final Curtain Call

Drag performer Vivien St James has died following the removal of her life support system.

The long-time star of the Melbourne stage passed away in the Alfred Hospital at approximately 6am today, Wednesday, March 4.

Her death comes after an operation to remove a brain tumour earlier this year.

Fellow performer and friend Paris was the last to see Vivien at 11pm Tuesday evening.

Vivien’s friend Alan Mayberry told MCV the funeral was likely to be at Le Pine Funerals in St Kilda, close to the Greyhound Hotel where Vivien gave countless performances.

Mayberry said details of the funeral would be published under the name ‘Turrin’ or ‘Turrin-St James’ in the Herald-Sun.

A fundraiser for Vivien was held at The Peel Hotel last Sunday, with drag performers turning out to donate their talents.

The Peel’s Ben Maros said drag icons including Paris and Rita Le Coqueater performed as part of the benefit.

“We even had a drag queen from Peru who doesn’t even know Vivien and she donated her time,” Maros said.

“The drag community came together, it’s just inspiring and it blew me away.”

Maros said Vivien was “one of the original performers”.

“Every time we have asked Vivien to do anything for us, she has been there with bells and all.”

Maros said $500 had been raised at the event.

- MCV - Rachel Cook with Andrew Shaw