Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

It’s the stuff you read about in sci fi novels and watch in thriller alien movies, but for the million residents in the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia last Friday, it was all too real. Just after sunrise on Feb. 15, the peace of the Ural Mountains was shattered by a once-in-a-century meteor explosion over the skies near Chelyabinsk.

The meteor, the diameter of which is estimated at 55 ft., left behind a trail of white smoke and blinding light in the sky and of shattered windows and damaged buildings on the ground. Nearly 1500 people were injured, most of who had been drawn to windows by the eerie flash of light which preceded the powerful sonic boom that sent shards of glass flying like shrapnel.

Aside from widespread shattered windows and doors, damage on the ground was largely minor, although car alarms wailed across the city and the shock was powerful enough to blow through a factory wall in the city. More than 3,700 buildings suffered damage, totaling just over $30 million USD.

“The main task now is to maintain heat in the apartments and offices where the glass was smashed,” said Chelyabinsk regional Governor Mikhail Yuyevich. Temperatures in the region at this time of the year range between approximately 0 Fahrenheit at night and about 20 degrees during the day.

The meteor penetrated the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 40,000 miles per hour and weighed approximately 10,000 tons. It exploded at an altitude of 10-15 miles above the Earth’s surface and released a burst of energy equivalent to 30 Hiroshima atom bombs.

University of Western Ontario scientist Peter Brown estimated that 33 seconds elapsed between the meteor’s “atmospheric entry to [its] airborne disintegration.

This meteor is the largest reported in the world since a meteor six times its size exploded over central Siberia June 30, 1908. That explosion released over 1,000 times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb. Due to the remote location of its impact, no human damage was reported, though over 80 million trees were toppled by the shock wave.

After disintegration, much of the debris from the Chelyabinsk meteor landed in and around Lake Chebarkul, located about 55 miles northwest of the city of Chelyabinsk. The Russian government sent scientists to the area immediately after the event to collect evidence of the meteor’s impact. A hole discovered on the frozen surface of the lake was initially thought to have been the result of the meteor, though divers have thus far found no debris in the lake.

On Monday, Russian scientists confirmed that they have collected at least 53 samples that came from the meteor around the hole in the lake. All of the pieces collected so far have been less than one-half inch in diameter. Early tests show that the rocks found so far contained about 10 percent iron, making this a common chondrite meteorite. Scientists still believe that the main body of the meteor is somewhere in the lake.

The Chelyabinsk meteor is the first one in recent history to have caused so many injuries on the ground. While many meteors enter the Earth’s atmosphere each year, most disintegrate due to frictional heat before impact. In 2003, a large meteor shower caused minor damage to cars and houses in the suburbs of Chicago.

Currently, NASA is constructing two observatories in Hawaii called Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), which would provide advanced warning for incoming space objects. The system is scheduled to go into operation by 2015.