At around 05:30 local time on February 15th 2013, an object was caught on camera burning up in the atmosphere above Chelyabinsk, a town near the Russian border with Kazakhstan.
Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency has said that the object, thought to be a meteor, was travelling at a speed of 30 km (19 miles) per second and is estimated to be approximately 10-20 meters in diameter.
Opinion is currently divided as to whether the spectacular videos of this event are capturing a meteor shower, or one parent body which has broken up in the atmosphere. In Russia, the prevalence of dashboard- mounted cameras means numerous fascinating videos of this event were captured.
Video can be viewed here.
Dr Stephen Lowry, planetary scientist at the University of Kent explains what we are seeing in the videos:-
“This was probably 10 to 20 metres in diameter, roughly. As the meteor comes in through the atmosphere, it gets heated up, basically by friction, pressure builds up. It has a lot kinetic energy. So there's a lot of energy dissipated at some point, as it gets closer to the surface of the earth.
And then at some point they can disrupt, producing shockwaves, so it's the shockwaves that have emanated at some point just above the earth's surface.”
Experts disagree as to whether this meteor is an independent astronomical body or if it has broken off from the DA14 asteroid, known to be passing within 27,520 km of the Earth today. At the time of the meteor entering the atmosphere, DA14 was still 500,000 km away.
Phil Bland an asteroid expert at Curtin University commented:-
“Is it connected to the flyby? A lot of folks would say “no”. Personally, I’ve always kind of liked the idea that there are streams of asteroid debris, so you can have smaller stuff that precede and trail a bigger object. It seems like an awful big coincidence if it’s not connected”.
However, Simon O’Toole an astronomer at the Australian Astronomical Observatory said:-
“It has been suggested that this is linked to 2012 DA14. I’m not so sure about this. It might be, but the universe is filled with a lot of unusual coincidences. As pointed out elsewhere, DA14 is still half a million kilometres away, travelling at 8km per second, for a start! Could it be part of the asteroid that has broken away and reached earth already? This seems unlikely to me”.
His sentiments were echoed by Mark Ford of the British and Irish Meteorite Society:-
“If I had to bet, I would say it’s not related. But it’s not unheard of for asteroids to have companion bodies with them. The problem you’ve got is it’s actually 12 hours between this impact and the [asteroid] tonight that’s going to actually come close to the earth, and that’s an awful lot of distance in terms of space … It makes the stream very wide. I would say it’s more likely that they’re unrelated than related.”
Initial reports seem to confirm that the trajectory of the meteor is different from that of the asteroid and that this event is co-incidental. Due to the multitude of videos of the event, it should be possible to calculate the trajectory of the meteor.
The Russian Ministry of Emergencies has said that more than 500 people have been injured, two of whom are in intensive care. The majority of injuries seem to have been caused by broken glass as windows shattered. Contrary to media speculation, the windows were not broken by the meteor exploding, but in response to a pressure wave generated when the meteoroids collided with the atmosphere.
It is currently unknown as to whether any pieces of this object have survived interaction with the atmosphere. Dr Lowry said:-
"It is possible for some fragments to have survived. Larger chunks can make it to the surface [of the earth]. Smaller bits can survive, perhaps bits more dense than others, or buried very deep within the object."
This article will be updated as more details emerge.
Russian Regional Governor has confirmed the number of people injured by this morning's events has reached 950.
Russian Academy of Sciences says the meteor weighed 10 tons and entered the earth’s atmosphere at a speed of at least 33,000mph (54,000kph) and shattered between 18 and 32 miles above ground (30 to 50km).
The Itar-Tass news agency reports that some fragments fell into a reservoir outside the town of Cherbakul, quoting the regional governor’s office. The agency also cited military spokesman Yarslav Roshupkin as saying that a 20ft (6m) wide crater was found in the same area.
Itar-Nass news agency also reported damage in the nearby town of Cherbakul, where the military said a 20ft (6m) wide crater was found.
The European Space agency has formally ruled out a link with asteroid 2012 DA14 passing tonight.
Emma LH Fairley