Meteorite Boom Injures a Thousand in Russia

Shockwaves from a meteor caused damage to buildings in central Russia, hurting at least a thousand people on Friday, according to news reports.

More than 200 children were among those injured in the Chelyabinsk region, Russia’s Interior Ministry told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

“Verified information indicates that this was one meteorite which burned up as it approached Earth and disintegrated into smaller pieces,” said Elena Smirnykh, deputy head of the Russian Emergencies Ministry press office, according to RIA Novosti. Warning that there could be a meteor shower, Russian authorities have cancelled school and told people to stay inside.

The meteor was likely moving at a speed in tens of kilometers a second, resulting in a “very, very violent event” that planetary scientist Marc Fries likened to “firing a rifle bullet into a swimming pool.”

The object’s size is still unknown, although some scientists suspect it may have been car-size.

On social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, video from central Russia showed a large ball of white streaking across the sky before crashing to Earth, appearing to send out a cloud of white light. Twitter lit up with news of the meteorite, with #RussianMeteor, #Chelyabinsk, and #meteor all trending on Friday morning.

“You can see in the videos that it glows brightly—it’s actually hotter than the melting point of stone at that point,” Fries, a research associate in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, said on Smithsonian’s website.

Meteorites this size are relatively rare, occurring about once a decade, he noted.

This video uploaded to YouTube contains the explosive sound of the meteorite’s shock wave:

Russia’s Internet and airwaves on Friday were swirling with rumors that the falling debris was evidence of an American weapons test.

In this frame grab made from a video done with a dashboard camera, on a highway from Kostanai, Kazakhstan, to Chelyabinsk region, Russia, provided by Nasha Gazeta newspaper, on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 a meteorite contrail is seen. A meteor streaked across the sky of Russias Ural Mountains on Friday morning, causing sharp explosions and reportedly injuring around 100 people, including many hurt by broken glass. Photograph by Nasha Gazeta, AP

In this frame grab made from a video done with a dashboard camera, on a highway from Kostanai, Kazakhstan, to Chelyabinsk region, Russia, provided by Nasha Gazeta newspaper, on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 a meteorite contrail is seen. A meteor streaked across the sky of Russias Ural Mountains on Friday morning, causing sharp explosions and reportedly injuring around a thousand people, including many hurt by broken glass. Photograph by Nasha Gazeta, AP

What’s a Meteorite?

There are hundreds of thousands of asteroids roaming our solar system that are the size of the Russian meteorite, noted Tim Swindle, director of the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

“What’s going on is you have this rock that’s happily orbiting the sun—from its point of view this morning a planet ran into it.”

At that moment, the asteroid slammed into our atmosphere at 10 or 20 times the speed of sound—producing a sonic boom and becoming what’s called a meteor. The impact—like hitting a wall—causes air friction that heats the meteor’s surface, shedding melted material and sometimes breaking into smaller pieces.

Any resulting pieces that make it to the ground are called meteorites. Most meteors burn up in the atmosphere, fall into the ocean, or crash into vast, uninhabited deserts, but at least every month or two there are eyewitness reports of fragments falling from the sky, Swindle said.

The number of injuries—most of them not thought to be serious, according to CNN—is the highest in recorded history due to a meteorite, according to Michael D. Reynolds, adjunct astronomy professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville and author of the book Falling Stars: A Guide to Meteors and Meteorites.

The last and only known incident in which a meteorite injured a person occurred in 1954 in Sylacauga, Alabama, when Ann Elizabeth Hodges was hit by a meteorite that crashed through her living room.

Meteorite hunters are likely headed to Russia this second, Reynolds and Swindle both noted—even though most of them are currently at a gem and mineral show taking place in Tucson. “A lot of tickets will be purchased to Moscow,” Swindle said.

Though it’s unclear how many pieces of the Russian meteorite ended up on the ground, Russian law allows any people who find meteorites to keep them.

Asteroid Flyby Today

The news came on the same day that an asteroid is expected to make its closest brush by Earth for an object of its size since astronomers started keeping records.

However, the Russian meteorite’s trajectory was “significantly different than the trajectory of the asteroid 2012 DA14, making it a completely unrelated object,” according to NASA.

“Information is still being collected about the Russian meteorite, and analysis is preliminary at this point. In videos of the meteor, it is seen to pass from left to right in front of the rising sun, which means it was traveling from north to south. Asteroid DA14’s trajectory is in the opposite direction, from south to north,” the agency said.

(See: Asteroid to Make Closest Flyby in History.)

The office-building sized chunk of rock, known as 2012 DA14, will come closer to Earth than most orbiting communication and weather satellites, according to NASA.

Visible to some skywatchers in the Eastern Hemisphere, the asteroid will be at its closest at 19:24 UTC (2:24 p.m. EST/11:24 a.m. PST) as it flies over the eastern Indian Ocean.

Overall, planetary scientists are keeping a close eye on any asteroid big enough to cause widespread death and destruction on the scale that likely wiped out the dinosaurs, the University of Arizona’s Swindle said.

“We are the first species to be able to see these coming.”

—Dan Gilgoff, Andrew Fazekas, and Jeffrey Tayler contributed reporting.

See More on Friday’s Meteor Shower in Russia

Video: Predicting Meteorite Impacts
Top 5 Videos of Russian Mega-Meteor
Pictures: Giant Meteorite Hits Russia
From Our Vault: 1897 Meteorite Recovery

Changing Planet

Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.