Meteor Blast Smashes Glass, Injures About 1,000 in Russia

A meteor exploded in the skies above Russia’s Ural Mountains, sending shock waves that broke windows, injuring people across the area hours before an asteroid half the size of a football field was due to pass the Earth.

About 1,000 people in the Chelyabinsk region were injured, mostly by flying glass shards, Vadim Kolesnik, an Interior Ministry official, said by phone. The explosion struck at about 7:25 a.m. Moscow time, 16 hours before a 45-meter (150-foot) asteroid named 2012 DA14 was forecast to pass the planet.

“It’s very much a reminder that we live sometimes in a cosmic shooting gallery,” Alan Fitzsimmons, a professor of astrophysics at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, said by phone from Hawaii, where he is working on the Pan-STARRS project to detect so-called near-Earth objects. “These are natural phenomena that can have dramatic effects.”

More than 100 tons of dust and sand-size particles bombard the Earth’s atmosphere a day, with most burning up short of impact, according to the U.S. National Aeronautics & Space Administration. About once every 100 years, asteroids larger than 50 meters reach the Earth’s surface. Larger impacts are rarer, and scientists theorize that an asteroid collision in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Three Impacts

Debris from today’s explosion hit the Earth at three points in the Chelyabinsk region, Kolesnik said. One piece probably hit a frozen lake about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Chelyabinsk, he said. A hole 8 meters in diameter was found in the ice, national television channel Rossiya 24 reported.

The meteor was at least 1 cubic meter (35 cubic feet), which if made of pure iron would weigh almost 8 tons, Sergei Lamzin, deputy head of the Sternberg State Astronomical Institute in Moscow, said by phone.

Burning streaks lit up the sky, in videos caught by drivers on dashboard cameras, broadcast on Russian state television and posted on YouTube. Rossiya 24 showed people bleeding from cuts.

“At our hypermarket in Emanzhelinsk, windows were blown out, the roof shook, there was a strong shock wave,” billionaire Sergey Galitskiy, chief executive officer of OAO Magnit, Russia’s biggest food retailer by value, said on Twitter. “A serious meteorite fell.”

Tunguska Meteor

Today’s event “can’t even be distantly compared,” with the 1908 Tunguska meteor, said Nikolai Chugai, an Institute of Astronomy department head at the Russian Academy of Sciences. That event caused the most powerful natural explosion in recent history, leveling 800 square miles (2,100 square kilometers) of forest in Siberia, while leaving no crater, according to NASA.

About 170,000 square meters (1.8 million square feet) of window glass will have to be replaced as a result of the event, RIA Novosti reported from a meeting led by Chelyabinsk region Governor Mikhail Yurevich. That is more than twice the area of Red Square in Moscow. Damage is estimated at 1 billion rubles ($33 million), Interfax said, citing the governor.

Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov told President Vladimir Putin in a televised meeting that 112 people were hospitalized. Some schools and kindergartens were closed because of broken glass, according to Rossiya 24. Radiation is within normal levels and power systems are working as usual, the Emergencies Ministry’s regional unit said on its website.

‘Cosmic Coincidence’

The concussive force destroyed a warehouse wall at the Chelyabinsk Zinc Plant and broke windows in other buildings, said Evgeny Ponomarev, a spokesman for the unit of billionaire Iskandar Makhmudov’s Ural Mining & Metallurgical Co. The plant is operating normally, Ponomarev said.

The meteor that exploded over Russia and the DA14 asteroid “are probably completely unrelated,” said Fitzsimmons, the Queen’s University professor. “It’s a spectacular cosmic coincidence.”

DA14 will come within about 17,000 miles of the Earth while passing over Indonesia at 2:25 p.m. Washington time today, according to NASA. Washington is nine hours behind Moscow. It’s the closest recorded approach of an object its size, according to the agency. A meteor is a chunk of asteroid or comet that enters the Earth’s atmosphere. If it survives and hits the surface, it’s called a meteorite.

The asteroid that’s approaching is moving in a different direction than the Russian meteor was, so probably isn’t related, said Tim O’Brien, associate director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics in Manchester, England.

No Light

So-called near-Earth objects are hard to detect because they “don’t produce any light of their own,” making smaller ones like today’s harder to spot, O’Brien said.

“The blast suggests it was a rocky meteorite,” the Institute of Astronomy’s Chugai said. Comparable blasts happened several years ago in Africa and around 50 years ago over Turkmenistan, he said.

Phone traffic in the Chelyabinsk region surged as much as 10-fold after the event, Valeria Kuzmenko, a spokeswoman for OAO Mobile TeleSystems, said by phone today.

MTS, Russia’s largest mobile operator, said its equipment is working normally, while No. 2 carrier OAO MegaFon said it was experiencing difficulties in the region and had turned to other operators’ networks for backup.

Putin ordered assistance for the victims. The Emergencies Ministry has deployed 20,000 emergency staff and eight aircraft, Puchkov said.

Space Defense

The event may prompt more research into space-debris defense systems, which could be used to protect the Earth from meteors as well, Alexei Kuznetsov, a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Space Agency, said by phone. The agency has been discussing the threat, while there is no consensus about the technology that could be used for prevention, he said.

“The solar system is a pretty dangerous place to live in: Just look at the surface of the moon or Mercury -- they’re totally covered with impacts,” John Zarnecki, professor of space science at the U.K.’s Open University, said by phone. “On the scale of a human life, it might seem quiet, but on the geological scale we’re being peppered all the time. We shouldn’t be too complacent.”

The Emergencies Ministry said the rest of the day should be quiet. “No further pieces of the meteor are expected to fall,” according to its statement.

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