National Geographic News

Marcus Woo

for National Geographic

Published December 12, 2013

On February 15, 2013, a 60-foot (18-meter) wide chunk of rock streaked across the Russian sky at 42,500 miles per hour, breaking apart as it exploded with 500 kilotons of energy. (See "Russian Meteor's Air Blast Was One for the Record Books.")

Now, scientists have created the first computer-simulated animation of the most well-recorded meteor impact in human history—thanks to cell phones and the dashboard cameras common in Russian cars. (See "Pictures: Meteorite Hits Russia.")

The flash of light from the Chelyabinsk meteor was bright enough to burn skin, and the impact generated a shock wave that shattered windows, injuring more than a thousand people.

The damage cost tens of millions of dollars, which is comparable to a typical presidentially declared state of emergency, said Clark Chapman of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, at a press conference during the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco this week.

Despite the damage, the meteor has been a trove of valuable information. Thanks to all the amateur video, scientists have an unprecedented amount of data they can use to learn about the meteor and to gauge the likelihood of a life-threatening impact in the future.

Peter Brown of the University of Western Ontario in Canada and his colleagues compiled amateur images and extracted data on how the brightness of the meteor varied over time.

From this so-called light curve, the researchers were able to calculate how much energy the fragmenting meteor released into the atmosphere as it tore through the sky.

Soon after the meteor struck, Mark Boslough of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, began working on a computer simulation of the impact.

Simulations allow researchers to validate their theoretical understanding of the meteor by comparing their computer models with real-world observations. These simulations take up a lot of computer power, so to speed things up, Boslough incorporated the energy data compiled by Brown's team instead of calculating them from scratch.

The result? High-resolution 3-D renderings that show what the meteor impact was like based on the data and scientists' understanding of its underlying physics.

The simulation generated still frames, which Boslough and Brad Carvey of Sandia stitched together to produce the video above. They presented the animation at the AGU meeting this week.

These kinds of animations are important for fully understanding the science of the meteor, Boslough said. "If you visualize it well, people can say: Oh, I get it. I understand it now."

What's needed now is a global network of telescopes that can detect meteors before they hit, he said. With earlier notice, scientists can then enlist more instruments and telescopes to study future impacts. (See "Russian Meteor a Surprise—But Many More Out There.")

Much attention has been paid to how well-documented the Chelyabinsk meteor was, he said. "But can you imagine how much better it would have been documented if we had a couple week's notice?"

With such an early-detection system in place, researchers could study smaller meteors that strike Earth's atmosphere but that often go unobserved.

Ultimately, Boslough said, researchers could come up with better risk estimates of life-threatening—or even civilization-threatening—impacts in the future. (See "Russian Meteorite Spotlights History's Other Crashes.")

55 comments
Daniel Roberts
Daniel Roberts

This one was 18 meters. Imagine the asteroid that hit the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico 65 million years ago. It was 10.000 meters in diameter.

cyril deons vithali
cyril deons vithali

catastrophy  on the surface of the earth itself is unbearable.celestial bodies as well as man made objects falling from above is unthinkable.let our researchers findout a  way out to predict earlier.let us hope for a better  future .

cyril

Andy Everett
Andy Everett

Thank you, but way too fast and where was the flash of light?

Atul Gupta
Atul Gupta

PHOTOGRAPHY AT ITS BEST.       WAITING  FOR 2014


David Pace
David Pace

That's it?  The ad lasted longer than the video.

judy mcleish
judy mcleish

No video!! No pictures!!  only ads……. 

Ashraf Karim
Ashraf Karim

good to know of Human and world life world wide and this the best source what I believe all regards to National Geo-graphics 

Renee Watkins
Renee Watkins

Could not play it?  Why?  I have windows XP.

Vivian Davis
Vivian Davis

To all you detractors: It is an ANIMATION. Only the meteor strike is animated. That is why the photo is still - no smoke is moving.

Carlos Decourcy Lascoutx
Carlos Decourcy Lascoutx

...some yrs ago in SMA, Gto., Mex at 10pm, an intensely green meteorite moving west to east

razored low through the valley where the pueblo is settled, so low i thought it was not going to

make the rim on the eastern side, before i had time to worry, it was gone. don't know as anyone else saw it. i was staying on the 2d story of an unfinished house with huge windows

at the time. 

Bruno Barral
Bruno Barral

The smoke above the house does not move ...

Curtiss Brown
Curtiss Brown

The commercial should not last longer than the animation. 


Brian Bray
Brian Bray

Did I miss something?  All I saw was a few seconds of a smoke trail.


Alejandro S.
Alejandro S.

Hey Nat Geo, remind me to never waste time again watching one of your "videos". Sitting thru the geico ad beforehand, pathetic. I'm now disconnecting you from my Facebook as well.

Caroline Wegner
Caroline Wegner

fast.... was this the actual fast motions of this meteror  ... or was there some fine tuning to this video???  I appreciate this visual immensely... beautiful capture for sure!! 

Eric Bram
Eric Bram

The advertisement we had to sit through to see the animation was 10 times longer than the animation. Why did they speed up the animation so much? Actual videos of the meteor showed it spending a much longer time traveling to the air.

Michael Johnson
Michael Johnson

I was expecting more than that. I saw the real videos that were much better. Seems like a waste of time and money to do that.

GOVIND S
GOVIND S

superb . looks like real.

Richard Drumm
Richard Drumm

You have the direction of the rising Sun wrong. Off by ~90 degrees... You may want to re-render... Scientific accuracy should be paramount for your organization.

Aditya Peri
Aditya Peri

I agree with Marcus' idea of having  global network of telescopes and it would be even better if they communicate with each other. ("Smart Telescopes")!

Jim Kirk
Jim Kirk

@Vivian Davis Ah, it's an "animation" only if it is animated (e.g. shows movement).  What my computer shows is a still photo. 


Renee Watkins It doesn't run on my Mac OS X 10.8 either.

Jerry Kreps
Jerry Kreps

@Olga Kruglova 

Excellent photos.   I couldn't stop until I had looked at all of them.  You have an excellent eye and an eye for composition.  Thanks!

Jude Jackson
Jude Jackson

@Richard Drumm I guess you should go over to Scientific American and decry their frivolous use of collage and anatomically incorrect John Cuneo illustrations. And while you're at it, blame National Geographic for some oversight by a grad student. Just as long as you're missing the point and picking nits.

Pup Equality McKeenan
Pup Equality McKeenan

@Aditya Peri don't need telescopes except for large comets and meteors. For smaller NEAR objects you need radar. a global orbiting radar network of satellites looking outward from the Earth to spot potential impacting objects.

Share

Feed the World

  • How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

Latest From Nat Geo

See more photos »

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »