Meteor impacts Ensisheim 529 years ago in oldest recorded impact

The Ensisheim meteorite was seen as a divine omen signifying divine favor over future Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and spread through the use of the printing press.

Woodcut showing the fall of the Ensisheim meteorite on November 7, 1492, as seen in the Nuremberg Chronicle. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Woodcut showing the fall of the Ensisheim meteorite on November 7, 1492, as seen in the Nuremberg Chronicle.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

November 7, 2021 marks 529 years since the commonly accepted date a heavy stony meteorite crashed into modern-day France in what is one of the oldest known meteorite impacts on Earth in recorded history.

Now known as the Ensisheim meteorite, the object crashed into the ground outside Ensisheim in the Alsace region, forming an approximately 1-meter deep impact crater. No one was hurt in the impact, which was said to be witnessed by just a young boy, but word soon spread throughout the city.

The meteor itself weighed 127 kilograms and was classified as an ordinary chondrite, the most common type of meteor. This classification means it is stony in composition and was never modified before breaking off from its parent asteroid. There are tens of thousands of known meteorites of this type, so in theory, the Ensisheim meteorite itself shouldn't stand out too much.

But what makes this meteorite so significant is not just that it impacted and that its impact was recorded, but the influence it had on subsequent historic events.

The meteorite quickly became seen as a divine omen, though the exact meaning was unclear at the time. Regardless, it was instantly seen as something divine, which had caused the people of Ensisheim to quickly begin breaking parts off to be used as good luck charms - though the local chief magistrate quickly put a stop to it, hauling it to the local parish church.

A portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, made by artist Albrecht Dürer in 1519. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)A portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, made by artist Albrecht Dürer in 1519. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The meaning of the omen was soon solidified later in the month, when Maximilian I, then the king of the Romans and who later became Holy Roman emperor, arrived in Enshisheim. Maximilian was on his way to battle the French but had become fascinated by the stone. He and his advisers soon declared it a holy omen, signifying God's favor of Maximilian. This was helped by the shape of the meteor, described by many as being triangular, much like the Greek letter Delta, which was compared to the sign of the Holy Trinity. 

The story of the meteor soon spread throughout Europe. This was due in part to two reasons. One of them was the sheer volume of the meteorite's impact, with contemporary sources indicating that it had been heard at least 100 miles away, as noted in a 1992 academic article.

But even more important was that it was printed and spread. The impact was the first known meteorite impact following the rise of the printing press. As such, detailed news was able to spread quickly. Before long, news spread in several cities through the help of broadsheets containing the writings of poet Sebastian Brant regarding the impact, as well as dramatic illustrations.

The dramatic style of writing in these verses, written in Latin and German, describes the awe-inspiring sight of the meteorite, the powerful sound the impact made and the deep and meaning it has for Maximilian and, more importantly, the French.

"It struck fear into the French," a translation of the German poem reads. "Truly, say I, this signifies a special plague upon those people."

"It sounded in the Burgundian' ears and caused the French to tremble," reads a translation of the Latin poem. "Whatever it was, I believe it portends a great future event; this, I pray, may overcome our fearful enemies."

The meteorite itself was preserved in Ensisheim, kept in the church where an inscription attached to it reads Latin phrase: De hoc lapide multi multa, omnes aliquid, nema satis ("Many have spoken of this stone, all said something, nobody has said enough"). However, as noted by the Meteoritical Society of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, it was removed during the French Revolution and sent to a museum for 10 years before being sent back to Ensisheim, though it had been severely reduced in size over then after many people chipped parts off of it. Today, the meteorite weighs only 53.831 kilograms and is currently on display in the Musée de la Régence in the city.

The remnants of of the Ensisheim meteorite. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)The remnants of of the Ensisheim meteorite. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Though this meteor did not cause severe permanent damage, the dangers of an impact of this kind are still severe.

The last known significant asteroid impact was on February 15, 2013, when an asteroid exploded in the air above Chelyabinsk, Russia. This asteroid was 17 meters wide, and while it didn't result in any casualties, the shock wave from the explosion shattered windows in six different Russian cities and caused 1,500 people to require medical attention.

The destructive nature of asteroids, even small ones, is something well-known to experts, with space agencies around the world monitoring for potential catastrophic impacts, as well as researching potential means of stopping them.

One method for possibly stopping the impact of an asteroid is through the use of deflection, which would mean launching something to slightly alter its path.

This essentially means punching an asteroid with a rocket with enough speed to change its direction by a fraction of a percent.

The most prominent of these efforts is the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) Mission, set to be launched in November, the result of efforts by NASA and the Applied Physics Laboratory.

However, other measures have also been considered – such as disruption, meaning destroying the asteroid, but at this time – these remain hypothetical.