The video footage emerging from surveillance cameras and an army of camera-toting Russian civilians who documented Friday’s close call with a meteor that entered the Earth’s atmosphere are terrifying and awe-inspiring.
In one video (top right) compiled by Russia Today, the meteor can be seen from the perspective of a driver on a Russian road who saw the trail of fire burning across the sky and intensifying until it became a massive glowing ball of light at the moment of explosion.
In another (bottom right), office doors and windows are blown in by the force of the meteor’s explosion some 32,000 feet above the Earth’s surface. The same video shows what appears an articulated metal door being torn free of its mounts as though it were a playing card.
They are a pulse-accelerating reminder that earth-bound natural phenomena such as hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes are not the only nasty curveballs Mother Nature can throw at the human race.
So, it is easy on a day when not one but two space objects lurked in close proximity to the only home we have in the universe to get a little, well, freaked out. Is there a way to it all into perspective?
Owing in large part to sloppily researched disaster porn programming manufactured for cable television audiences, there’s a lot of confusion about what is whizzing around our solar system and what specific dangers we face from differing types of objects.
[pullquote]The reality of living in a solar system that is in its adolescent stage of development is that its “room” – the space we share with millions of bits and pieces of rock, metal and ice that orbit the sun – is messy. The Earth will (and does) trip over space debris.[/pullquote]What exploded some 32,000 feet over the Chelyabinsk region of Russia on Friday was a meteor, a smallish space rock that enters the Earth’s atmosphere. When a meteor survives the trip through the atmosphere and collides with the Earth’s surface it is called a meteorite. The Chelyabinsk meteor heated to a temperature causing it to explode before impact, creating a light show that outshone the sun at its brightest and a destructive blast wave that caused significant property damage and injury to people on the ground. The power of the explosion was estimated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to have been equivalent to 500 kilotons of TNT, roughly twenty times the combined force of the atomic bombs dropped to end World War II.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration estimated that the Chelyabinsk meteor was 56 feet in diameter upon first contact with our atmosphere and weighed 10 tons. Imagine a UPS delivery truck carrying 400 frozen Thanksgiving turkeys and it becomes clear that Friday’s destruction was caused by an object large on a human scale but relatively small if we use a cosmic measuring stick.
For ultimate contrast, the asteroid thought by some to have caused the extinction of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period is estimated to have been 6 miles in diameter. Meteors the size of the one that created havoc over Russia do not represent extinction level threats to the human race, but an impact or an airburst explosion closer to the ground would be disastrous if it occurred in a populated area.
Thankfully, most meteor events – though not entirely uncommon – are less extreme than Chelyabinsk. Often, meteors enter the atmosphere at shallow enough angle to either “skip” off back into space or burn out at a high altitude. In those cases, viewers on the ground may see and hear the same smoke trail and loud boom, but without the accompanying shock wave that knocked doors off of some buildings and sent some 1,000 Russians to hospitals, most with non-life-threatening injuries.
Though meteors are small when compared to their larger cousins – asteroids such as the 160-foot 190,000-ton rock known as DA14 that also passed near the Earth Friday – small is measured on a scale that includes planet-sized objects. Furthermore, because meteors are smaller than most of our detection equipment can reliably see, atmospheric explosions and strikes are frustratingly outside of our prediction capability. Asteroids are marginally easier to spot and track, as are comets (objects of similar in size to asteroids that orbit the sun and are composed of ice, gas and rock that shed a veil of material that reflects the sun’s light), but detection is not always possible.
The reality of living in a solar system that is in its adolescent stage of development is that its “room” – the space we share with millions of bits and pieces of rock, metal and ice that orbit the sun – is messy. The Earth will (and does) trip over space debris.
The Chelyabinsk meteor is the largest space object event to occur since the 10 to 15-megaton Tunguska event in 1908 that flattened several hundred square miles of Siberian forest. In the years after Tunguska, there have been 13 other recorded meteor air bursts none of which caused any serious damage.