Russian Meteor Shockwave Circled Globe Twice


The Chelyabinsk meteorite punched a hole in the ice of a lake near Chelyabinsk, Russia. Photograph from Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images.

The 10,000 ton asteroid that exploded above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February produced such a powerful shockwave that it raced around the world twice, according to a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Researchers report that 20 world-wide monitoring stations, designed to detect ultra-low frequency sound waves emanating from nuclear-test explosions, managed to record the waves produced by the asteroid’s explosion for the first time ever.

The Russian meteor hit the atmosphere at 11.6 miles (18.6 kilometers) per second. The concussive blast was heard at monitoring stations as far away as Greenland and Antarctica.

Traveling at hypersonic speeds, near Mach 60,  the meteor experienced increasing air pressure as it pierced the denser part of Earth’s atmosphere, finally imploding 14 miles (23 kilometers) above the Earth. Hundreds of fragments rained down, with the largest pieces weighing up to half a ton. (See pictures of the damage it caused.)

Fragments of the Chelyabinsk meteorite are examined under a microscope on March 1, 2013, at the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry in Moscow, Russia. Photograph by Stanislav Krasilnikov, ITAR-TASS/Corbis.
Fragments of the Chelyabinsk meteorite are examined under a microscope at the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry in Moscow. Photograph by Stanislav Krasilnikov, ITAR-TASS/Corbis.

The research team also confirmed that the blast from this 56-feet-wide (17-meter-wide) space rock had an estimated force of 460 kilotons of TNT—equivalent to about 30 atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.

The February 2013 event now ranks as the second largest impact on Earth since the Tunguska fireball in 1908. The 1908 event released nearly ten megatons of TNT and scorched millions of trees over hundreds of square miles. (Related: “Russian Meteorite Spotlights History’s Other Crashes.”)

The last comparable meteoroid atmospheric detonation occurred above the skies of Sulawesi, Indonesia, back in 2009 and was measured at 50 kilotons.

Scientists estimate a Chelyabinsk-like airburst occurs about once a century, while a much bigger Tunguska-like event, thankfully, may only come around once every few centuries. (Related: “Russian Meteor a Surprise—But Many More Out There.”)


Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter and Facebook.

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.
  • Adegbesan Adebimpe

    God will help us

  • Mikel Alvarez

    have you submarine photos of this meteorite?

  • Sean

    Since the meteorite exploded into hundreds of peices I doubt there would be anything large enough that would be easy to find in the bottom of a lake.

  • Frank

    I agree with Mikel! I want to see this sucker!

  • Kimi

    Imagine a pool, filled with gasoline, which is 1 meter deep, 100 meters wide and 5142 meters long. You blow it up, thats the impact energie of this asteroid

  • Mickey Herd

    Thankfully they don’t come round often.

  • Kevin Woolf

    Neat! One thing though, it would be helpful to keep all your units the same to allow easier direct comparisons. (10 Megatons vs 460 Kilotons )

  • Peter Deutsch

    “The answer is to question.”

    Megatons and kilotons really are the same fundamental units with a slightly different prefix.Those are the least of the problems. Try working out ton as in the energy yield of a ton of tnt exploding.
    The prefix kilo means thousand and mega means million. To keep things more uniform would it be better to say ten thousand kilotons rather than ten megatons or 0.46 megatons rather than 460 kilotons? Or four hundred sixty thousandths of a megaton? To figure these things out one needs to get in there and try things out. Then one is in a better position to say.
    See what Kimi from Finland did above with gasoline. Or take the speed v and mass m of the asteroid as given and work out the combination (1/2) times m times v squared. That is the energy (of motion)of the asteroid. Go visit the wikepedia several times as is necessary, and figure it out and check your work. Wikepedia gives such basic input. That’s all the National Geographic people had to do, convert ‘one half m v squared’ to tons of TNT (Trinitrotoluene) explosion energy yield. TNT exploding thoroughly yields one Calorie- a large calorie per gram.
    Now all one has to do is work with those units…. The more people actually attempt these things the more likely it is that all the important mistakes will be caught. And right answers will be found. Kudos also to the people above who ask question about the hole through the ice and what is actually left behind. Search, look up and share other examples, on line and yes in books and in periodicals.

  • Klaus Peters

    Are we safe on earth. No we are not, we can be wiped out in a blink of an eye.
    Then why do we have conflicts and wars?

  • jimmy

    when the meteor exploded 14.5 miles above in the sky then why it took 3 minutes for shock wave to hit the ground? its confusing plz tell me.

  • Francis Baziraake

    This is physics at work! Leave God out of this please!

  • ametyst07
  • Craig

    Leave God out of this? Religious people are not required to check their religions at the door when commenting just to make you feel better. Sorry.

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