The 7,000 metric ton meteor that exploded over Russia’s Chelyabinsk region on Friday morning was the largest meteor to make contact with the Earth since 1908 when one broke up over the Tunguska River in the Ukraine. Scientists say that data collected by a network that monitors nuclear weapons testing suggests hundreds of kilotons of energy were released, meaning that it was far more powerful than the nuclear weapon recently tested by North Korea.
Despite being about 15 meters across, the meteor went undetected until it hit the Earth’s atmosphere around 9:25 am in Chelyabinsk, which is near the southern Ural Mountains and the site of many factories, a nuclear power plant and the Mayak atomic waste storage and treatment center. A blinding fireball tore through the sky, followed by loud bangs. More than 4,000 buildings suffered damages and windows shattered, with the glass falling onto people who had gathered to watch the strange sights in the sky.
Some 1,200 were injured, including 200 children and more than 9,000 workers have been dispatched to the area to assist in clean-up and rescue operations. About 50 acres of windows were broken, with damages estimated to add up to a billion rubles ($33 million). Some reports have mentioned casualties.
A Russian army spokesman said that a large fragment of the meteor may have ended up in a frozen lake in the town of Chebarkul as a large crater about 20 feet wide was found there. Six divers did not find anything in the frozen sludge; the search for the meteorite will probably re-commence in the spring when the ice melts (though professional meteorite hunters are already selling fragments online). The meteorite is thought to be mostly composed of rock with some iron and nickel. Scientists say that, based on when it appeared and the direction it came from, the meteor was not related to a larger asteroid known as 2012 DA14, which came within about 17,200 miles of Earth later on Friday.
About ten meteorites collide annually with the Earth along with a number of basketball-sized objects; the latter usually burn up on impact with the atmosphere. Fragments the size of peas are the shooting stars oft-mentioned in poetry. The Guardian has a map (based on data from the Meteoritical Society) of every meteorite that ever fell to earth.
Here are other meteors that have made contact with the Earth, some in a very big way.
1) Some 162,000 people live in Ontario’s Sudbury Basin, which is 40 miles long, 16 miles wide and 9 miles deep. It was created by a huge meteor that hit the earth about 1.85 billion years ago. In 1891, the Canadian Copper Company started mining copper from the basin; it also found nickel and the mines now provide about 10 percent of the world’s nickel supply.
2) 65 million years ago, a meteor estimated to be several miles wide crashed off the coast of Mexico. A crater (now called the Chicxulub Crater in Yucatan), which is 110 miles wide, resulted, massive amounts of dust and debris were cast into the atmosphere and giant tsunamis occurred, as well as “global fires, acid rain and dust that blocked sunlight for several weeks or months, disrupting the food chain” and potentially leading to the demise of the dinosaurs (though some say the crater was created hundreds of thousands of years before dinosaurs became extinct).
3) The Vredefort Dome in South Africa is 186 miles wide, the largest impact crater on the Earth. It’s about two million years old and was made by a six-mile-wide rock that slammed into our planet. Over time, the crater’s walls have eroded and granite rocks from its center have been pushed up to form the current dome.
4) At 66 tons, the Hoba meteorite is the heaviest yet found. Scientists estimate that it landed more than 80,000 years ago and left no crater. A farmer in Namibia discovered it when his plow struck it in 1920. The government declared it a national monument in 1955, at which point it weighed some six tons less due to vandalism, erosion and scientific sampling.
5) After a loud boom, a 330-pound meteor landed in a wheat field in Ensisheim, France, on November 7, 1492; only a young boy saw it fall. En route to fight the French, German King Maximilian stopped to see the meteor, which he considered a good portent (he was right; he was victorious against his foes).
6) While neither a crater nor a meteorite has been found, scientists think the latter caused the 1908 Tunguska event, which flattened scores and scores of trees, blew up buildings and scorched people, all in a 13-mile radius. Accordingly, conspiracy theories about alien spaceships and black holes have surfaced — indeed, after last Friday’s meteor strike in Chelyabinsk, a Russian politician has blamed a U.S. weapon test.
7) Barwell, Leicestershire got a surprise Christmas gift when a meteorite, the largest to hit Britain, rained down on it with fragments on Christmas Eve 1965, making it a mecca for meteor enthusiasts the world over and generating quite a bit of revenue.
In other words, be wary if you read about bits of the Chelyabinsk meteor for sale online in the months to come.
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Photo of meteor trace above Chelyabinsk via alexeya/Flickr