Meteor Mayhem

by Seth Shostak on February 15, 2013

Perhaps it’s the aroma of borscht, or maybe just the fact that it’s a big country, but Russia seems to be a favorite target for asteroids.

On Friday February 15, a rock the size of a truck slammed into the atmosphere above Chelyabinsk, a city of about one million people on the eastern flank of the Ural Mountains. The resulting shock wave blew out windows, collapsed a roof, and – as consequence – injured a thousand people. If this unannounced visitor had been a few times larger, it might have made it all the way to the ground, producing a crater that – depending on location – would either be the scene of indescribable carnage, or merely a future tourist attraction.

In 1908, Russia experienced something similar when an asteroid the heft of an office building ruptured above the Tunguska River valley in Siberia. The impact had the energy of several hundred atomic bombs, and leveled millions of trees. No people were injured or killed, simply because no one lived nearby.

Still, the Chelyabinsk meteor is a reminder – in case one was needed – of the fact that there are 40 or 50 thousand rocks the size of a football field or larger cruising our celestial neighborhood. The larger of these – the ones that could wreak truly widespread devastation – have been mostly discovered and charted. So that’s the good news: We’ll have ample warning if a rock comparable to the impactor that decimated the dinosaurs is headed our way.

But smaller rocks, like the one that lit up the sky above Chelyabinsk, remain elusive. It’s NASA’s intention to seek them out over the course of the next two decades. Estimated cost of this massive reconnaissance project? About $500 per asteroid. That’s inexpensive insurance.

Asteroids are the major subject of study of Peter Jenniskens, here at the SETI Institute. In particular, he’s tracked down bits of these celestial projectiles in the Sudan and in California’s gold country. They can tell us something about the origins of our solar system, of course. But they are very much like the big cats of Africa … fascinating to study, but deserving of caution.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar patkarnes February 15, 2013 at 11:32 pm

Wow Seth I have to say this actually makes me want to change my concentration of study to meteors or asteroids or whatever you want to call them. I am an astronomy student right now. I was thinking of a thesis about the effect of the earths revolution around the sun at its speed and the solar systems revolution around the galaxy at its speed combining those to find out how all of that….and gravity effects human aging. But now maybe I will do something on comets and asteroids.

avatar Jeff Popplewell February 16, 2013 at 7:28 am

Seth, I’m assuming we’ll receive a Big Picture show segment about this relatively rare event. This was an undetected small asteroid that avoided detection, yet had the power of nearly 30 Hiroshima bombs. Will we remain reactive or become pro-active? Thanks!

avatar F I MacIllFhinnein February 16, 2013 at 11:00 am

Everyone says no-one died in 1908, but Russia’s surveys didn’t extend to all the people there until well after the Russian Revolution at best, and probably until after the Second World War. (Recently, one family living in a remote part of Siberia was discovered.) So who knows how many people died, or if no-one died?

avatar Jeff Popplewell February 19, 2013 at 3:01 pm

It’s easy to say no-one died, but what is the probability that 2,150 square kilometres were unoccupied?

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