A FEW MINUTES later, at about 11:45 am, a brilliant fireball flashed over Carancas, a tiny village at 12,000 feet in Peru’s remote altiplano, a high plain bounded by the Andes. For those on the ground, this celestial visitor was the brightest thing anyone had ever seen in the sky.
A local radio host witnessed the blaze descend behind a hilltop statue of Jesus and rushed to his station to announce the arrival of a UFO. One villager saw the smoky trail and figured it must be Superman. Someone else saw a scorpion falling; he thought it was an antahualla, a mythical creature in local lore that soars from mountaintop to mountaintop at night, cloaked in light, menacing those below.
What they all saw was a rock, somewhere between 7 and 12 tons of chondrite studded with pyroxene, olivine, and feldspar, burning at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It had begun its journey in the asteroid belt, more than 110 million miles away, floating between Mars and Jupiter, and it was among the largest meteorite arrivals in living memory. The rock was probably not much bigger than a dinette set, but that was large enough to generate an exospheric detonation with the energy of a low-yield nuclear weapon. Then it struck Earth.
Gregorio Urury, a farmer in Carancas, was sitting outside his small adobe house, taking a break from tending his sheep, when he felt the impact. He listened, paralyzed, as the sound passed over him—a low hum that quickly rose into a scream—until the ground shook. He couldn’t stand up at first. His dogs barked wildly. When he gathered himself and searched the plain, he saw a column of dense smoke rising in the distance.
It was the end of the dry season and the land was parched. The spring storms were about to roll in, and farmers would take cover indoors for fear of being found by a lightning bolt in the flat expanse. Urury, like most residents of Carancas, is part of the indigenous Aymara nation, a group that has lived here for centuries. Their land is hard to farm, contains few minerals, and has almost no features but for sod brick houses, shepherds, and their flocks, along with wild herds of vicuña, a more graceful relative of the llama. There are no fences, and a single dirt road bisects the plain. Urury’s farm is a modest holding that he had meant to leave to his children, until they, like so many others, left their father’s village for the cities.