Meteor Q&A: Meteor over Russia 'very small'

A similar-sized meteor to the one that exploded in the sky over Russia today would cause “significant fatalities” if it hit Earth.

Meteor Q&A: Meteor over Russia 'very small'

A similar-sized meteor to the one that exploded in the sky over Russia today would cause “significant fatalities” if it hit Earth.

But the 10-ton meteor was “very small” comparatively and objects of that size rarely penetrate the “amazing defence” of the Earth’s atmosphere, according to Hugh Lewis from the University of Southampton in England.

Despite it not making contact, nearly 1,000 people have been injured after the meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains this morning.

Dramatic amateur video footage showed the meteor streaking across the sky at around 9.20am local time. It caused a bright flash of light and left a white trail of smoke.

The injuries were caused when the meteor, which was travelling at least 54,000 miles per hour, created a sonic boom, according to Tim O’Brien, associate director of the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory.

“It made a sonic boom in the atmosphere, and that hit buildings and shattered windows. That is what seems to have caused the injuries,” he said.

“It’s a completely abnormal experience. This thing appeared in the distance, raced over the horizon and was followed up 30 seconds or a minute later by a huge boom as the shockwave hit the ground. I can imagine that would be very frightening.”

Chelyabinsk’s health chief, Marina Moskvicheva, said 985 people in her city had asked for medical assistance and 43 had been taken to hospital after the blast which shattered countless windows in the area.

Sergey Hametov, a resident of Chelyabinsk, said: “There was panic. People had no idea what was happening. Everyone was going around to people’s houses to check if they were okay.

“We saw a big burst of light, then went outside to see what it was and we heard a really loud thundering sound.”

Dr Lewis, an astronautics expert at the University of Southampton, said the meteor was “very small” at around five metres in diameter.

“Something that size very rarely penetrates through the atmosphere,” he said.

“The atmosphere provides us with this amazing defence so it results in this amazing fireball and it fragments into smaller objects.”

But if the meteor were more metallic in its make-up, it may have penetrated the atmosphere and hit the Earth, leaving a crater three times its size and causing “significant fatalities”, he said.

It would cause a “quite substantial” blast which would emanate a large amount of heat transferred from the kinetic energy of the meteor.

“You would probably see considerable fatalities if it hit a populated area,” he said.

Experts said the meteor appeared to be unconnected to an asteroid predicted to narrowly miss the Earth tonight.

The asteroid, named 2012 DA14, is big enough to flatten London and could come as close as 17,200 miles.

Dr Hugh Lewis, an astronautics expert from the University of Southampton, answers the key questions surrounding the meteor which exploded over Russia today, injuring nearly 1,000 people.

:: Where did the meteor come from?

Dr Lewis explained that no-one knew about the meteor before it was spotted streaking across the Russian sky.

He explained that detection systems are in place to spot larger meteors and asteroids, but this was “very small” at around five metres in diameter.

He agreed with the prevailing expert opinion that it was not likely to be related to the asteroid 2012 DA14, which is passing Earth at a narrow distance tonight.

:: What was it made of?

“It is likely to be based on rock like what you would find on Earth,” Dr Lewis said.

He added that it may have contained some metals, such as iron.

:: How big was it?

The meteor was measured to weigh 10 tons. Dr Lewis said it would have probably measured around five metres in diameter, comparatively “very small”.

:: How fast was it travelling?

The Russian Academy of Sciences said it was going at least 33,000 miles per hour and shattered about 18-32 miles above the ground, releasing several kilotons of energy.

Dr Lewis said meteors could often travel “much faster” than that.

:: What would have happened if it had hit Earth?

Dr Lewis said objects of that size rarely penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere.

But if it had more metal in its make-up, it may have got through and hit the Earth, he said.

That would leave a crater three times it size and a “quite substantial” blast which would emanate a large amount of heat transferred from the kinetic energy of the meteor.

“You would probably see considerable fatalities if it hit a populated area,” he said.

:: What can be done if we know a meteor or asteroid is going to hit Earth?

Scientists are constantly monitoring space for asteroids and meteors, and there are options to deal with them, including nuclear weapons, Dr Lewis said.

But if the object is between 0.6 and 1.2 miles in size, it would cause a global catastrophe.

“There are surveys going on to look for the larger stuff. It depends how soon you could pick them up,” he said.

“If you detect them early then we can contemplate deflecting an asteroid.

“As a very, very last resort you can always call upon nuclear weapons.

“And if everything goes wrong you do have the option to evacuate people.

“But if you get something between 1km-2km (0.6-1.2 miles) in size then you are talking global catastrophe so evacuation probably wouldn’t do any good.”

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