Science Channel - InSCIder

19 Feb

Russian Meteor Mayhem

ITAR-TASS: CHELYABINSK, RUSSIA, FEBRUARY 15, 2013. A white contrail left by a meteor over Chelyabinsk. (Photo ITAR-TASS / Viktoria Gorbunova)

A few years ago, British science writer David Spiegelhalter calculated that the odds of a person on Earth being hit by a falling meteorite are about one in 20 quadrillion. I suspect, however, that those odds weren't much comfort to the 1,200 Russians injured as the result of a 10,000-ton meteor that exploded high over the Ural Mountains just after sunrise on Friday. 

Although initially reported by the Russian Academy of Sciences as smaller and lighter, NASA says the meteor was 55 feet in diameter and weighed 10,000 tons when it entered the Earth's atmosphere at a speed of about 40,000 miles per hour, and then shattered into pieces between 18 and 32 miles above the Earth's surface. The blast released what the Associated Press describes as "the power of an atomic bomb" and sent fragments raining down upon Chelyabinsk, a Russian city of one million, which lies about 930 miles east of Moscow. (See photos of the aftermath.) The shock wave caused by the meteor shattered an estimated one million square meters of glass, and damaged 3,000 buildings in the city, according to local officials quoted by AP. The Moscow Times reported that it caused an estimated $33 million in damage. Here's a YouTube video shot by a local resident, showing the contrail left in the sky by the meteor, and the sound of the blast.

Check out this video to see more footage of the meteor captured by witnesses:


Most of 1,200 people actually were injured by flying glass, rather than pieces of the meteorite itself, the AP reports. (BBC News  put the number of injured people at "at least 950.") One of them was Chelyabinsk resident Marat Lobkovsky. "I went to see what the flash in the sky was about," he told the AP. "And then the window glass shattered, bouncing back on me." 

The US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology put out this release calling today's meteor crash a "...a stark reminder of the need to invest in space science."

The meteor strike had an eerie coincidence to it, coming on the same day that a much larger near earth object, the office-building-sized asteroid 2012 DA14, is scheduled to pass as close as 17,000 miles to the Earth's surface. NASA quickly put out a statement noting that the trajectory of the smaller object that exploded over Russia was different from the asteroid, and that the two events appear to be "completely unrelated."

Here's a live stream of the passing asteroid from NASA:

Live video from your iPhone using Ustream Even so, it was a chilling reminder of what might happen when a much larger object strikes the Earth. That's something that the Russians know about. On June 30, 1908, a huge fireball crossed the sky in Siberia and exploded in a huge blast--now known as the Tunguska Event--that leveled trees over an 830-square mile area, according to an expedition that visited the remote area 13 years later. The researchers were unable to find an impact crater, oddly, and today, we remain unsure about exactly what it was that caused the explosion, with scientists debating whether it was a large meteor, an asteroid, or perhaps even a comet.

Meanwhile, a Russian jokester had a little Photoshop fun, and tweeted this image of a bare-chested Russian President Vladimir Putin riding the Chelyabinsk meteor.

Watch this Meteorite Men video to learn more about the science behind falling meteors:


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