Are meteorites full of star jelly?


With a name like Smucker's Raspberry Jam, you know it came from a meteorite in your backyard. (Sabine Scheckel/Photodisc/Getty Images)

So unless you were deterred by cloud cover, light pollution, smog or exhaustion, there's a good chance you caught a glimpse of some meteoric fireworks this week.

The Perseid meteor shower occurs around this time every year, when the Earth passes through the trail of cosmic dust left by the comet Swift-Tuttle. When these bits and pieces enter Earth's atmosphere, they produce friction and burn streaks across the sky.

All that's all well and good, but I know what you're all thinking: Are any of these bad boys landing in my backyard and leaking star jelly all over the place? I mean, we've all seen the movies and TV shows. We KNOW what the worst case scenarios entail: man-eating blobs, pod people, body snatchers, moss-covered horror writers and nympho parasites sexing up our beloved Whoniverse .*

So what are the chances of actually finding star jelly after a meteor shower? Well, according to The Straight Dope, following the 1979 Perseid meteor shower, a Texan woman by the name of Sybil Christian alerted NASA to purple clumps of warm goo in her front yard. Ever ready to save old ladies from the threat of cosmic shaving cream, the government scientists came out and investigated. Their prognosis? Caustic soda used to clean lead out of old batteries.

Sure, "caustic soda" is far from an exciting explanation, but that's why we have conspiracy theories. When science gives you lemons, you stick your fingers in your ears and imagine the lemons are actually part of a secret government UFO lab. Despite NASA's take on the situation, various rags ran with the notion that the stuff was Pwdre Ser, or "Rot of the Stars."

According to Nature and New Scientist, there have been countless sightings of similar meteorite-related gunk over the centuries -- and plenty of scientists have taken up the task of figuring out just what the nasty goo consists of. From case to case, the answers seem to vary. They've identified such terrestrial substances as slime molds, frog viscera, fresh water bacteria clusters, fungi or even frozen human waste expelled from an airliner.

The underlying principle is this: When meteor showers occur, sometimes it looks like they're falling just on the other side of the nearest hill. So curious types troop out into the wilderness to try and find it. Granted, most meteors burn up in the atmosphere -- and even when they don't, it's often hard to find them. So instead, the meteorite hunter inevitable happens on something they've never noticed before, such as a slime mold. Wham, they make an intuitive leap and figure this is what fell from the heavens.

To paraphrase fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes, when you have eliminated the terrestrial, whatever remains, however extraterrestrial, must be the truth. The problem with star jelly is that there are nearly endless terrestrial explanations. Please try and eliminate those first.

* "Torchwood" reference. Ask Tracy about it.

Keep watching the skies at HowStuffWorks.com: How Comets Work How the Leonid Meteor Shower Works How did a meteor make hundreds of people sick? Top 10 Space Conspiracy Theories 10 Memorable Meteor Crashes


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.