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Meteor streaks over Russia, injuring hundreds

Posted: 15 February 2013

A meteor thundering over central Russia has blown out windows, shaken buildings and lit up the morning skies. At least four hundred people have been injured, mostly bruises and cuts from flying glass as the shockwave from the break-up of the meteor high over head rattled buildings.

The meteor, which left a thick cloud of smoke and vapour hanging in the sky, comes on the same day that a fifty-metre wide asteroid, 2012 DA14, is due to make a close encounter with Earth and come within 28,000 kilometres of our planet. The two events are not currently thought to be related, but together they do serve as a warning as to the threat of asteroids impacting Earth.

"Absolutely it is a wake-up call, that's crystal clear," says Jay Tate of the Spaceguard Centre UK in North Wales. The Spaceguard Centre is a private centre set up to partake in the search for potentially hazardous asteroids (see our accompanying story).

As more details emerge from Russia, it is becoming clearer what has happened. At around 9:20am local time (5:20am UT) on 15 February, a meteoroid entered the atmosphere over eastern Russia and the Urals region. Racing through the atmosphere leaving a thick, billowing cloud of smoke, it broke up at around 10,000 metres. Fragments are reported to have made landfall as meteorites in a lake near Chebarkul, a town in the Chelyabinsk region, and damage to homes reported as far away as 200 kilometres.

Find out the difference between a meteor, meteroid and meteorite.

"When something like this breaks up, then you get a shock wave," says Tate. "We saw that over Tunguska in 1908, South America in 1930, Revelstoke in 1968; this is quite a common event. What is uncommon is that this has happened over a populated area."

Indeed, the scale of the number of injured is unprecedented in living memory, says Tate. But with this event and the close passage of DA14 on the evening of 15 February, does it mean that governments will start to take a more serious interest in the threat posed by asteroids?

Unfortunately, Tate isn't convinced this is going to happen. Spaceguard UK is the only centre in the UK actively addressing the issue, but operates on donations and has never been centrally funded.

"I think it highly unlikely the UK will do anything," says Tate. "It's been ten years since the Atkinson report and since then the only thing the UK Government did was set up the national near-Earth object information centre at the National Space Centre in Leicester, but they stopped funding that last year, so that's closed and we've actually taken over that job. Their [the UK Government's] view has always been that we needn't bother because the Americans are doing it all, which is not the case."

Europe's Meteosat 10 weather satellite spotted the vapour trail left behind the meteor over Russia. Credit: Eumetsat. See a larger image.
Recently NASA accomplished a task given to them by the US Congress to find 90 percent of all near Earth asteroids bigger than a kilometre across - potential civilisation killers were they ever to collide with out planet. However, many millions of smaller bodies remain undiscovered, and some we only find out about after they've entered Earth's atmosphere, as in the case in Russia. According to Tate, there is a reluctance amongst the United States government to shoulder the burden by themselves, when the threat of asteroids is an international problem that Congress believes demands an international solution. "But so far there's not been a lot of international response," says Tate.

Tate meets many people curious about dangerous asteroids when they visit the Visitor's Centre at the Spaceguard Centre, and says that when he tells them that the UK is not funding research or surveys into potentially hazardous asteroids, people react in shock.

"When you explain that, in the UK at least, the Government is doing absolutely nothing, we're met by surprise and anger," he explains. "People really can't understand why something's not being done, given that it would be something that would be relatively cheap to help sort out."

For more information about the Spaceguard Centre UK, visit their website.

Meteoroids, meteors and meteorites

The terminology for such events can be confusing. In space, a small rocky body of this kind, perhaps a few metres across, is called a meteoroid. Upon entering Earth's atmosphere we describe it as a meteor as it streaks through the atmosphere. Any chunks that do reach the ground are termed meteorites. The event in Russia should correctly be described as the shock wave from a fragmenting meteor. If any of the fragments are found on the ground, they will be described as meteorites.