The Rock That Clobbered Russia: Meteor Post Mortem

New studies of last years' incident in Chelyabinsk suggest that more such cosmic shellings may lie aead

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Andrey Tkachenko / Reuters

Reporters gather around a piece of a meteorite, which was lifted from the bottom of the Chebarkul Lake, placed on display in a local museum in Chelyabinsk, on Oct. 18, 2013. The meteorite exploded over central Russia in Feb. 2013.

Chunks of rock fall from space all the time, some of them big enough to do a fair amount of damage. Most of the time, however, nobody’s the wiser: the vast majority of Earth’s surface is ocean, desert or wilderness, so even a good-sized meteorite can fall without anyone noticing. And that’s assuming the incoming ordnance makes it through our atmosphere at all without burning up first.

That’s not how things played out last February 15, though, when a 60-ft.-wide (18 m) space boulder blazed through the skies above Chelyabinsk, Russia just after sunrise, then exploded in mid-air. The fiery meteor was so bright it briefly outshone the Sun, and even caused sunburns; its sonic boom, meanwhile, smashed thousands of windows and threw people to the ground. Nobody died in the incident, which lasted no more than 10 seconds or so, but about 1,500 people had to seek medical treatment for their injuries.

By falling in such a densely populated area, the Chelyabinsk meteor also became the most widely observed and thoroughly documented such event in history. And by drawing on camera footage, eyewitness accounts, the distribution of smashed windows, imagery from downward-looking satellites, seismic records and more, scientists have managed to piece together an extraordinarily detailed account of the rock’s brief passage. “This event has so many fantastic observations it’s incredible,” says Peter Jenniskens, of the NASA Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute, co-author of one of three papers that have just been published about those observations, one in Science and two in Nature.

(MORE: Meteorite Pulled From Russian Lake is One of World’s Biggest)

One statistic the dozens of scientists involved have nailed down is the enormous burst of energy released when the meteor exploded as it fought its way through the atmosphere at more than 40,000 m.p.h. (64,000 k/h)—a blast equivalent to about 500 kilotons of TNT, or more than 30 times the power of the A-bomb that leveled Hiroshima. The meteor, which originally weighed about 13,200 tons, had already begun breaking apart at an altitude of 27 miles (43 km) or so, and low-frequency sound recordings noted no fewer than 11 fragmentation events as it fell to 18 miles (29 km) above the ground.

At that point, it more or less exploded. “Two main fragments survived,” says Jenniskens, with the rest of the meteor vaporizing in a burst of heat that sent a mushroom cloud billowing upward. One of those chunks fragmented further, about 11 miles (18 km) above the ground; the remaining chunk ended up smashing through the ice covering Lake Chebarkul. “We were extremely lucky to find camera footage that actually filmed the chunk entering the lake,” says Jenniskens, who joined Russian colleagues in visiting 50 villages in the region to take measurements and record eyewitness testimony.

That half-ton fragment—a meteorite, which means it made it all the way to Earth, in contrast to a meteor, which burns up while still airborne—was finally located and hauled out of the water last month.

(MORE: Asteroid Pours Water on Dead Sun. Yes, That’s Happening)

The way the original meteor fragmented, meanwhile, suggested to researchers that it had been part of a larger asteroid that broke apart while still in space. And alterations in the chemical structure of the rock caused by cosmic-ray bombardment dated that breakup to about 1.2 million years ago. Based on its orbit­, inferred from the detailed entry trajectory reconstructed from all the available evidence, that breakup probably didn’t happen when the parent body was in its original home in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Instead, says Jenniskens, it would have happened during a close gravitational encounter with one of the inner planets.

“That suggests,” he says, “that the rest is still out there. People have looked, but haven’t found it yet.” Another asteroid fragment that screamed past Earth just a few hours after the Chelyabinsk event seemed like a likely candidate, but its trajectory suggests it was unrelated—which means the rogue rock is still at large.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that there may be still more boulders of this size and destructive power than scientists had thought. “If this is a one-in-a-hundred-year impact,” says Mark Boslough, of the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, a co-author of one of the Nature papers, “we shouldn’t have seen it.” That’s because the odds are overwhelming that it would have occurred in a remote area, completely out of sight—which is more or less what happened with the Tunguska event in 1908, when a much larger object exploded in a sparsely populated area of Siberia. That one released about 1,000 Hiroshimas’ worth of energy, but it mostly flattened trees, and had no eyewitnesses—or at least, none who lived to tell the tale.

(MORE: Revealed: The Awesome Explanation For the Moon’s Extra Gravity)

The fact that the more recent rock did find its way to Chelyabinsk might be simple bad luck, but it raises the odds that other meteors are hitting unpopulated areas too. Boslough estimates that these smaller but still potentially devastating impacts could be ten times more likely than scientists have assumed.

The next huge impact, comparable to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, is probably not coming for millions of years, and a rock like that, up to six miles (9.6 km) across, will at least be much easier to spot far in advance. In the meantime, Chelyabinsk should serve as fair warning that finding and cataloging the larger population of much smaller space rocks is more urgent than we ever knew.

(VIDEO: This Giant Asteroid Could Hit Earth Within 20 years—So YOLO)

2 comments
BabuG.Ranganathan
BabuG.Ranganathan

ASTEROIDS, COMETS, AND METEORS ORIGINATED FROM EARTH: In the Earth's past there were powerful volcanic explosions propelling millions of tons of earth soil and rock (now asteroids and meteors which may contain organic molecules or organisms) into space. Read my popular Internet article, ANY LIFE ON MARS CAME FROM EARTH. The article explains how millions of tons of Earth soil may exist on Mars, and how debris we call asteroids and meteors could have originated from Earth. According to a Newsweek article of  September 21, 1998, p. 12 that quotes a NASA scientist, SEVEN MILLION tons of Earth soil may exist on Mars! How could this be possible? Read and find out.

Even if the right chemicals exist, life cannot arise by chance. The molecules that make-up life have to be in a sequence, just like the letters found in a sentence.

Scientist and creationist, Brian Thomas explains:

Astronomers measure comets' masses and erosion rates to calculate potential lifespans. Sungrazing comets last fewer than 100,000 years.2 They thus confront secular astronomy which maintains that comets formed with the rest of the solar system billions of years ago. A solar system that old should have no remaining comets.

How do secularists solve this dilemma?

Reporting on Ison, The Independent said, "Comet Ison has taken millions of years to reach us travelling from the so-called Oort cloud – a reservoir of trillions and trillions of chunks of rock and ice, leftovers from the birth of the planets."3

Unfortunately, nobody has yet witnessed a single one of those "trillions and trillions of chunks." Going strictly with observational science, the "so-called Oort cloud" may exist only in the reservoir of the human mind.

Clearly, secular astronomers invented the Oort cloud to rescue their billions-of-years dogma from a disintegration process that limits a comet's age—and thus the age of the Solar System—to thousands of years. When Ison becomes visible later this year, perhaps it will remind thoughtful viewers that the universe is quite young, just as Scripture teaches” (Brian Thomas, M.S., Science Writer at the Institute for Creation research).

Check out my most recent Internet articles and sites: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION and WAR AMONG EVOLUTIONISTS (2nd Edition)

Babu G. Ranganathan*
B.A. Bible/Biology

Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

*I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I've been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis "Who's Who in The East" for my writings on religion and science.