Ten years ago today, the earth was hit by the most spectacular and dangerous meteorite impact in living memory: the Chelyabinsk meteor. While the world got off relatively lightly from this incident – many casualties but no fatalities – it was a stark reminder that the meteor threat should never be underestimated. Just ask the dinosaurs.
Chelyabinsk: The largest meteorite impact in living memory
On February 15, 2013, at 9:20 am, as people were getting ready for the day, the sky over Russia lit up with a bright streak over Chelyabinsk Oblast in the southern Urals. Shocked viewers didn’t know at the time, but this was the result of a space rock crashing to earth.
At an altitude of about 45 kilometers (30 miles), it slammed into the atmosphere at a speed of 19 kilometers per second (42,690 miles per hour), resulting in a violent shock wave roughly equivalent to an explosion of 440 kilotons of TNT, according to NASA .
Later research revealed that the celestial object was originally about 20 meters (65 feet) wide and weighed about 12,000 tons. That’s relatively small for a meteorite, but it definitely made a difference.
Windows shattered, car alarms went off and roofs collapsed, injuring around 1,500 people. Thanks to smartphones, vehicle dash cams and security cameras, the event may be the first time a prominent meteor impact has been recorded from multiple angles simultaneously, allowing scientists to study it.
Much of the meteor’s mass burned off as it sped through the atmosphere, while other chunks of rock were hurled across Chelyabinsk Oblast. Schoolchildren and curious local residents reportedly found fragments of the meteorite in the area but kept it secret for fear of being taken away by scientists or state authorities.
In the hours after the first crash, a 6 meter wide hole was discovered in the frozen surface of Lake Chebarkul. After a recovery mission lasting several months, the researchers managed to pull a 654-kilogram meteorite from the bottom of the lake. Most of this incredible object is now in the State History Museum of the South Urals in Chelyabinsk.
The Chelyabinsk meteor was a bit of a wake-up call for how a larger meteor impact might affect Earth, but we’re still surprisingly bad at predicting it.
How can we predict meteorite impacts?
Earlier this week, a small meteor about 1 meter (3 feet) in diameter burned over the English Channel between France and Britain in the early hours of the morning. Remarkably, this was only the seventh time an asteroid impact had been predicted before it happened.
Scientists and space agencies around the world are closely monitoring the problem by monitoring near-Earth objects. Once found, the orbits of these objects can be determined and their future trajectories predicted to assess whether an impact is likely. However, many potentially dangerous objects remain undetected.
However, humanity is not completely unaware of the problem. Last year saw the success of NASA’s incredible DART mission, in which the agency, for the first time, intentionally crashed a spacecraft into a celestial object and changed its orbit forever. It showed that we may have the power to deflect a space rock headed for Earth.
However, that depends on whether we discover the dangerous space rock before it’s too late.