Meteorite Impacts Russia While Asteroid DA14 Nears Earth

Meteorite Impacts Russia While Asteroid DA14 Nears Earth

While everyone’s attention has been focused on the imminent close pass of asteroid 2012 DA14 later today, a meteorite crashed in Russia’s Ural Mountains this morning injuring more than 400 people primarily from broken glass. 

The U.K. Space Agency and the European Space Agency each tweeted that the meteor is unrelated to 2012 DA14, which will pass Earth at an altitude of 17,150 miles later today.   Though physically they may be unrelated, the two events certainly are coincidental and involve the same type of celestial objects — asteroids.   An asteroid is basically a rock that stays in space. If it enters Earth’s atmosphere and streaks across the sky, it is called a meteor.   If it reaches the ground, it’s a meteorite.  Many asteroids that become meteors do not survive the journey though the atmosphere and put on beautiful nighttime displays.  Sometimes they come in clusters and are called meteor showers.  Some meteor showers recur on a regular schedule, such as the Perseids and Geminids.

Still images and videos (like this one on YouTube) of the meteor streaking across the Russian sky today are available on the Internet already. The image below was published by the Associated Press (AP) with a caption saying it was taken with a mobile phone camera in the Chelyabinsk region, about 900 miles east of Moscow.

Image credit:  Associated Press/Sergey Hametov

Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reported that more than 400 people were injured by the event, which occurred about 9:20 am local time.  Russia’s RIA Novosti added that the meteor fell into a body of water one kilometer (1.6 miles) from the city of Chebarkul and estimated the injuries at 500.  That news source said three victims are in “grave” condition.  The injuries are primarily from broken glass caused by the sonic boom created by the meteor.   News reports from Russia give conflicting information about whether any fragments were located.

Organizations like the B612 Foundation have been warning about the potentially catastrophic damage that asteroids can cause on Earth.  In a Wall Street Journal op-ed yesterday, B612 Foundation CEO (and former astronaut) Ed Lu and renowned British astronomer Martin Rees made the case for putting more effort into locating asteroids that could potentially harm Earth before it’s too late: “On most days, human civilization wins the game of cosmic roulette.  But just as we take precautions to reduce our individual risks of dying in car accidents or earthquakes, we should do the same to reduce our societal risk of a catastrophic asteroid impact.  Let’s open our eyes and stop gambling with our future.”   The B612 Foundation is seeking funds from philanthropists and the public to build the Sentinel Space Telescope, a spacecraft that would orbit the Sun in a particular type of orbit that allows it to detect and track more asteroids than can be seen by Earth-based telescopes.  Conceptually, if a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA) was identified with sufficient lead time, measures could be taken to divert its trajectory away from Earth.

One of the most dramatic meteor impacts in modern history also occurred in Russia.   In 1908, an asteroid exploded above the ground near the Tunguska River in Siberia, flattening trees for 800 square miles.  Further back in history, an asteroid impact is widely thought to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

NASA scientists insist that asteroid 2012 DA14 will safely fly past Earth this afternoon.  DA14 was discovered last year and scientists have a good understanding of its trajectory.    It will make its closest approach of 17,150 miles altitude at 2:25 pm EST today and cannot be seen from the United States since it will be daylight.  The best viewing will be in Australia.  NASA will air an animation of the event with commentary by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientists on NASA TV from 2:00-2:30 pm EST.

JPL manages NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) program that has been detecting and cataloging asteroids for many years.  NEOs are asteroids and comets whose paths bring them into Earth’s neighborhood.  They have catalogued about 90 percent of the largest asteroids that could pose the greatest threat and improved equipment now allows smaller objects like DA14 to be added.   DA14 is about 150 feet (45 meters) in diameter.

Phil Plait (@BadAstronomer) is posting images and information about today’s Russian meteorite to his blog.  As he says, it may be unrelated to DA14, “but what a huge coincidence.”


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