Why you should care
Because you might encounter this stuff and you really shouldn’t touch it.
Picture this: You come out your door in the morning after a cloudy night, and there, quivering on your doorstep, is a gelatinous mass a few inches wide. Kind of like the Blob, only it doesn’t want to eat fresh-faced 1950s teenagers and their wide Cadillacs. Instead, when you go back to inspect it, it’s disappeared. Or maybe you’re able to collect it and take it to a lab — the government should know about this! — and are told it has no DNA.
It’s no wonder that star jelly — also known as star spawn, star rot, astromyxin and caca de luna, or moon poo — has been a mystery for centuries. Thirteenth- and 14th-century scholars thought it was what remained of falling stars, but the fact that it’s definitely not is one of the few things modern scholars can agree on. Some report it as smelling unpleasant, others that it has no smell. It usually disappears in the heat of the day or when it’s touched.
There are hundreds of years of reports from Texas to Australia — one of which, according to legend, inspired The Blob.
Vladimir Bychkov didn’t start out on the moon poo circuit — he’s a lightning-ball specialist at Moscow State University who’s interested in “things that fly near Earth and drop on people.” Bychkov began studying moon poo when villagers who’d discovered some after watching something fall to Earth wrote him a letter. He started gathering information on the star jelly, which he says is collected as medicine in rural Siberia, though he couldn’t clarify what it’s used for. Theories abounded about what the substance might be: frog spawn, though DNA tests hadn’t turned up any frog DNA, or something borne on a meteor, though it would burn up in the atmosphere.
It turned out the answer was in the clouds. Bychkov’s research indicates that the jellies are formed when airflow, carrying molecules of algae and other germs, moves from Earth to the clouds. From there, the cloud’s organic matter feeds the germs, creating a DNA-less gelatin substance. When it gets big enough — and, most important, heavy enough — it drops out of the cloud, creating the falling-to-Earth impression that’s associated with the phenomenon of shooting stars. Some star jellies are a few centimeters wide, while others are the size of a car. The variation in odor and color, Bychkov says, can be explained by the type of germ or algae around which the jelly formed. Bychkov knows of a hundred or so documented cases throughout the Northern Hemisphere; the internet, he says, makes it easier to find more, beyond hundreds of years of reports, from Texas to Australia, of the gelatinous blobs — one of which, according to legend, inspired The Blob.
So if you find some star jelly of your own? Leave it alone, Bychkov says, no matter the purported medicinal properties. Though the germs that create star jellies aren’t dangerous, diseases carrying germs can hitch a ride on the substances — right onto the curious fingers of would-be scientists who touch them.