Russian meteor will teach us about future bigger hits

14:09 15 February 2013 by Jacob Aron

You wait years for a space rock and then two come along at once. Just hours before an asteroid is due to almost graze Earth, a meteor has exploded over the Russian region of Chelyabinsk, injuring hundreds of people and damaging nearby buildings.

Studying the impact could give clues to future hits from rarer, bigger space rocks, which are bound to occur.

The impact occurred at 0320 GMT today, the very day that astronomers are anticipating the close fly-by of asteroid 2012 DA14, although there is thought to be no connection between the two events. “This is a remarkable coincidence,” says Stephen Lowry, an astronomer at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK.

Details of the strike are still emerging, but pictures and video shared on social media offer clues to the meteor’s make-up and origin. “It’s certainly smaller than 50 metres and larger than a metre,” says Simon Green of the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK. It appears to have exploded as it entered the Earth’s atmosphere, creating a shock wave that shattered windows, damaged buildings and apparently collapsed the roof and walls of zinc factory.

The Russian Academy of Sciences says the meteor weighed 10 tons and entered the atmosphere at a speed of at least 54,000 kilometres per hour, exploding between 30 to 50 kilometres above the ground. Reports from Russia also say that more than 900 hundred people have been injured, mostly by broken glass. Reports also suggest there are no fatalities, although two people are in intensive care.

Astronomers will want to recover any fragments of the meteorite that hit the ground. “You’ll find them strewn over a large area. There may be some very large fragments but there will be many smaller ones spread over kilometres,” says Green. “We can study the science of the bodies and learn more about the bigger ones, which are the real threat.”

The much smaller Sutter’s Mill meteorite that fell on California last year yielded many fragments that showed it was a very rare type of rock called a CM chondrite.

Read more: Russian meteor will teach us about future bigger hits – space – 15 February 2013 – New Scientist.

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