Scientists in India are investigating the death of a man suspected to have been killed by a falling meteorite. The incident, which has yet to be confirmed, also injured three others. If it's found that a meteor strike was the cause of death, it's possible that this could be the first such confirmed fatality ever – although there are historical records suggesting a similar incident may have occurred back in 1825.
The man killed, a 40-year-old bus driver named V. Kamaraj, suffered severe injuries when he was struck by an unidentified object on Saturday on the grounds of a college campus in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. According to reports, he died from his injuries while on the way to hospital.
Two gardeners and a student were also injured, by what government officials first assumed was a blast resulting from explosives.
"There was a noise like a big explosion," G. Baskar, principal of Bharathidasan Engineering College, told Aditi Malhotra of the Wall Street Journal. "It was an abnormal sound that could be heard … at least 3 kilometres [1.9 miles] away."
Baskar was working in his office when he heard the explosion, which left a 1.2-metre-deep (4 foot) crater in the grass outside the college cafeteria and broke windows in the vicinity. "It was a sound like nothing I've ever heard before," he told Sandhya Ravishankar at Reuters. "There was no smell at all, no fire, nothing."
Officials concluded a meteorite might have been responsible for the crater when they found what appeared to be a small, dark blue stone of some kind at the scene, bearing some resemblance to a diamond.
"When no evidence of explosive material was found, we moved to the theory that it might be a meteorite," an unnamed district official told Reuters. "It is not confirmed yet as samples need to be analysed."
The suspected meteorite, photographed above, is being examined by scientists from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. NASA is also investigating. "Our Planetary Defence Coordination Office is aware of the reports and is looking into it," a spokesperson told Laura Geggel at Live Science. "So at this point the report is unconfirmed."
It remains to be proven whether the object came from outside Earth's atmosphere, and also whether it is an actual meteorite or some other form of debris, such as a fragment of space junk.
As to whether a fatality by meteorite has ever occurred before, reports are conflicted. According to Reuters, a list kept by the International Comet Quarterly states that the last reported death from a meteorite strike was in 1825, but NASA disputes this.
"It is so rare, there has never been a scientifically confirmed report of someone being killed by a meteorite impact in recorded history," Lindley Johnson, NASA's Planetary Defence Officer, told Live Science. "There have been reports of injuries, but even those were extremely rare before the Chelyabinsk event three years ago."
The Chelyabinsk meteor impact in Russia injured approximately 1,500 people in 2013, although all of these injuries were sustained indirectly, from the shock wave or broken glass, rather than through direct contact with the meteor itself.
One of the most famous injuries ever sustained due to a meteorite occurred in 1954, when a woman in Alabama was struck by a softball-sized chunk of rock that crashed through her ceiling.
While it's estimated that thousands of meteorites enter Earth's atmosphere every year, most of these are extremely small, and compared to the vast amount of land and sea where people aren't located, the odds of being struck are extremely low.