National Geographic Daily News
Photo of a 3D simulation of the Chelyabinsk airburst.

This 3-D simulation of the Chelyabinsk airburst shows the immense power of the meteor's air blast, the strongest to hit Earth in a century.

Illustration by Andrea Carvey, Mark Boslough & Brad Carvey

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published November 6, 2013

The February meteor blast over central Russia glowed 30 times brighter than the sun, sunburned observers, and delivered the biggest astronomical punch felt on Earth in a century, report scientists.

Scientists warn that the 500-kiloton-or-stronger "airburst" over Chelyabinsk on February 15, 2013, points to a higher-than-expected threat from similar small asteroids in the future. (See "Exploding Asteroids Pose Greater Threat Than Direct Hits.")

Published by the journals Science and Nature, the three related analyses combine data from satellites, seismometers, dashboard cameras, damage surveys, and asteroid fragments to look at the Chelyabinsk event.

In the studies, the international impact teams re-created the roughly 65-foot-wide (20-meter-wide) asteroid's 42,500 mile-per-hour (68,400 kilometer-per-hour) collision with Earth's atmosphere.

The event injured about 1,500 people and damaged thousands of buildings in a part of central Russia that is home to one million people. (See "Russian Meteorite's Fiery Entry Captured by Satellites.")

"Some witnesses reported being burned by the light," says Science study co-author Peter Jenniskens of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

"Not just the windows were broken, but the window frames were pushed in, in the buildings," said Jenniskens in a Science podcast. "The [shockwave] was so strong that it was able to topple over people standing."

Meteor Surprise

On the day of the meteor's arrival, much of the astronomical world's attention was turned toward 2012 DA14, an office-building-size asteroid that made a close 17,100-mile-high (27,520-kilometer-high) passage over Earth.

News of the Russian meteor took observers by surprise, although experts such as NASA's Bill Cooke quickly deduced that it was unrelated to 2012 DA14, which passed harmlessly over the South Atlantic. Instead, the Chelyabinsk meteorite started its 18-second death plunge heading east across central Russia, in the Northern Hemisphere.

Astronomers didn't see it coming because of its relatively small size and because it was hurtling toward our planet from a sun-facing direction, blinding telescopes.

On its trajectory, the meteor first created a shock wave in the air about 59 miles (95 kilometers) above Earth, growing in strength and brightness as it burned and began to fragment.

At about 17 miles (27 kilometers) high, it broke apart, according to the Nature study led by Peter Brown of Canada's University of Western Ontario.

The breakup delivered a final blast of air pressure felt within 79 miles (127 kilometers) of the meteor.

Shattered fragments rained across central Russia, and a hole 23 to 26 feet (7 to 8 meters) wide was punched in the 27-inch-thick (70-centimeters-thick) ice of Lake Chebarkul, near Chelyabinsk. A 1,300-pound (600-kilogram) meteor fragment was recently recovered from the lake.

Meteorite Origins

One Nature study led by Jiri Borovicka of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic ties the Chelyabinsk meteor's trajectory to rubble from the near-Earth asteroid 1999 NC43, which is roughly 1.37 miles (2.2 kilometers) wide and orbits the sun on a path that crosses Earth's orbit every few years.

Asteroid 1999 NC43 is not itself seen as a threat to Earth, but one of the analyses suggests that something hit the asteroid perhaps 1.2 million years ago, knocking off pieces of rubble that included the Chelyabinsk meteor.

"The rest of the rubble could still be part of the near-Earth object population of asteroids," concludes the Science study led by Olga Popova of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

That means more pieces could be headed our way.

Airburst Threat

That same concern appears in the Nature analysis led by Brown, which notes that only about 500 asteroids in the size range of 33 to 66 feet (10 to 20 meters), the size range of the Chelyabinsk meteor, have been spotted by astronomers to date.

But perhaps 20 million such small asteroids are thought to orbit on paths that bring them near Earth, the authors say.

That significantly raises the possibility of future airburst events like the Russian meteor, the study suggests, and the 1908 Tunguska event.

Tunguska was a much larger, 10,000- to 50,000-kiloton airburst that flattened several hundred miles of Siberian forest (for context, the 1945 atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima delivered a roughly 15-kiloton explosion).

"Chelyabinsk opens the door for new analyses of airburst events and their frequency," says MIT impact expert Richard Binzel, who was not on the study teams. He calls the studies a "final word" on the much-debated size and power of the Russian meteor.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

23 comments
stephen fain
stephen fain

Larry DeClerk     I too saw a fireball, mine was mid-day middle of summer. I was in So. Georgia USA, clear, hot day...the fireball fell almost vertically & I could clearly see what looked like rotation, or possibly flames &/or jets of gas coming off of it. The "flames" (for ease of description, probably plasma, I would guess) were changing colors from red to orange/yellow & blue-ish. It was so bright it caught my eye at a very high angle, probably 80% from horizon. Watched it fall-RAPIDLY to about 15-20% above horizon...& it flashed & disappeared, without hearing any boom or sound....I figured it had to be a fair distance away to have heard nothing. This was about 1980 or so, when I was 14 or 15 & made such an impression I have pondered it MANY times since...would give almost ANYTHING to know where it landed or even just how far away....there was no way  to get a true idea of scale.

Brian M.
Brian M.

What if this had happened in the late 60s when we were all doing nuclear attack drills in grade school?

I think that regardless of whether it happened over the USSR or US, it easily could have triggered a world wide nuclear war when the country "attacked" quickly launched a retaliatory strike.

Chance plays such a large role in our short lives (and our quick deaths). Guess that's why the practice of sacrificing and praying to influence the supreme beings thought to be in control is so prevalent through the ages, not to mention the completely unsupported but eqully prevalent belief of life persisting after life ceases.

Sorry folks. But NG articles are just so darned thought provoking.

Lyle Marks
Lyle Marks

Love this. Shows the power of God when people run to science and technology to fix everything. Wouldn't all really matter if one of those bastards slammed into your hometown, would it? Praise God!

Girish Bhave
Girish Bhave

Fantastic and fascinating information......shudder to think of such incident happening over a densely  crowded city like Mumbai !!!

Ernesto Gomez
Ernesto Gomez

It will be the end of California as a State should a meteor of this dimension triggers a megaquake on the San Andreas fault... 

Larry DeClerck
Larry DeClerck

I remember seeing a fireball traveling essentially on a horizontal plane in mid 1971. It was between May and Oct, at approximately midnight. It looked to be roughly the size of a tennis ball held at arms length with actual flames coming off of it. I did not hear any sound, but the light from it attracted my attention when it lit the inside of my vehicle up like daylight. This was in Western Ny State. It was traveling North and heading out towards Lake Ontario. I often wonder if it landed somewhere up in Canada, and just what was its actual size.

Charlotte-ellen Bebee
Charlotte-ellen Bebee

Due to the fact that it came out as a surprise as well as the fact that it wreaked damage for such a 'small meteor", it really makes one ponder, 'Just how prepared are we for celestial impaction on our planet?"

Enzo Lanza
Enzo Lanza

Well, for the moment they keep hitting Russia, let's hope they continue doing so... ;-)

Tyler Black
Tyler Black

500,000 metric Tons of FORCE!!! Ouch.

Arthur Jr
Arthur Jr

Imagine this meteor hitting the east coast of the US.

Douglas Deveau
Douglas Deveau

@Lyle Marks Then why are you using technology to spread your words, use the power of the imaginary dictator to communicate to the rest of us!

Brian M.
Brian M.

No offense @Lyle Marks, but I really don't get how a random celestial event of this sort "shows the power of God".

Also "wouldn't all really matter" if someone simply trips walking down into the basement and hits their head hard on the sharp edge of a concrete step as my uncle did the day he died. They're dead either way, whether from a small event or a large.

Why is this "power of God" only evident in big events that randomly kill people?

November Rains
November Rains

@Ernesto Gomez:  Take heed, and be quiet;  fear not.   Neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands.  :)

Vladimir Garcia
Vladimir Garcia

@John Wachira Well the asteroid was in front of the Earth. The Earth's gravity captured the asteroid, so basically the Earth was trying to kill us.

Jason Dynak
Jason Dynak

@Charlotte-ellen Bebee we are not at all prepared.  Even if a potentially life-ending asteroid were to be identified, we do not have technology or power to shoot Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis up into space and blow it up.

Doug Smith
Doug Smith

@Tyler BlackKilotons is not a force measurement, it's an energy unit.  A kiloton or more properly kiloton TNT is the amount of energy released by a 1000 tons of TNT going off. 500 kilotons = 2.09 × 10^15 joules. Based on when and where the measurement came about it would not be a metric ton but a 2000 lb ton.

Trending News

Celebrating 125 Years

Phenomena

See more posts »

Latest News Video

See more videos »