If Friday February 15 had been scripted in a sci-fi movie, it wouldn’t have been believable. What are the odds, indeed, of a meteor exploding over Siberia, site of one of the most famous meteorites in history, on the morning of the day that another is scheduled to miss Earth by a cosmic-hair’s breadth?
It boggles the mind: Just as the astronomical world was awaiting with bated breath for the orbital swipe of an asteroid stretching half the length of a football field, a space rock a fraction of that size blew out windows and injured 1,000 or more with its shock wave near where a famous meteorite hit in 1908. Moreover, that long-ago meteorite was about the size of the one that missed Earth this afternoon.
The two hunks of space rock were not in any way related, scientists at NASA said. For one thing, the early-morning boulder that streaked across the sky over the Ural Mountains in Russia and surprised commuters in the industrial city of Chelyabinsk was traveling north to south, while the one that blew past us 17,200 miles from the Earth’s surface at about 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time was going in the opposite direction.
The Russian meteorite, and the fact that no one saw it coming—it was too small for that, as Slate reports—has brought renewed attention to calls for an asteroid detection system more refined than the one we have now.
Last year NASA said it had identified at least 4,700 asteroids capable of hitting Earth, and urged that a warning system be put in place. It was echoing similar concerns raised to a United Nations committee in November 2010, Space.com reported. This week the U.S. House Committee on Space, Science and Technology plans a hearing on “asteroids that pose a potential threat to Earth” in the coming weeks, Bloomberg reported.
Scientists were still gauging the size of the Russian fireball at press time. Peter Brown, who directs the Center for Planetary Science and Exploration at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, told Space.com it was about 50 feet in diameter and weighed 7,000 tons. But Russian scientists told The New York Times and other media that it was only five feet wide and weighed 10 tons.
Either way, everyone agreed that the blast was the biggest in more than a century, rivaled only by the 1908 explosion of what is known as the Tunguska meteorite, so named because it blew up over the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in Siberia. In doing so it flattened about 825 square miles of forest—millions of trees.
Russia said it sent personnel and planes out to search for meteor fragments. The television station Russia Today reported that about 1,200 people had sought medical attention and at least 110 had been hospitalized, two of them in "heavy condition." Many of these injuries were from windows blown out by the shockwave, which shattered more than a million square feet of glass, Russia Today said.
Meanwhile, the original show-stopper, which itself had been declared one for the record books, had its thunder stolen, so to speak. That would be the bona fide asteroid 2012DA14, at 150 feet wide half the length of a football field, which posed no threat to Earth and won’t be seen again in these parts until 2080, The New York Times said.
It was livestreamed by NASA and viewed—via telescope and binoculars, since even at such close range it was not visible to the naked eye—by astronomers worldwide. But its relatively tame brush with fame was anticlimactic as Earthlings were riveted by the dramatic explosion above the Ural Mountains.