UPDATE: The number of injuries is very fluid as information continues to develop; as of this morning, 7:30 AM PST, that number was up to 1000, with 43 hospitalized. The story below reflects the earlier count of 400.
Outer space both intrigues and terrifies. Stargazers will gather outside to watch meteor showers light up the sky like so many natural fireworks. Others who pay attention to the random nature of space events wonder if a passing meteor will hit earth and what will happen if it does. Members of that second group had a chance to find out today in Russia.
While there are conflicting reports on the details – how many have been injured, whether it was a meteor shower or a single meteor – everyone agrees that a significant meteor event happened in Russia early Friday morning. As curious viewers watched and captured it on camera, a bright contrail was seen streaking quite a distance across the sky above the Urals region before the meteorite arched dramatically and, as it approached the town below, exploded in a cacophonous blast. Fragments rained down and concussive shock waves shattered windows, reportedly injuring up to 400 people.
From the Huffington Post:
“There was panic. People had no idea what was happening. Everyone was going around to people’s houses to check if they were OK,” said Sergey Hametov, a resident of Chelyabinsk, about 1500 kilometers (930 miles) east of Moscow, the biggest city in the affected region.
“We saw a big burst of light then went outside to see what it was and we heard a really loud thundering sound,” he told The Associated Press by telephone.
Another Chelyabinsk resident, Valya Kazakov, said some elderly women in his neighborhood started crying out that the world was ending.
Some meteorites – fragments of the meteor – fell in a reservoir outside the town of Cherbakul, the regional governor’s office said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency. It was not immediately clear if any people were struck by fragments.
Interior Ministry spokesman Vadim Kolesnikov said more than 400 people had sought medical treatment after the blasts, and at least three had been hospitalized in serious condition. Many of the injuries were from glass broken by the explosions.
Further confirmation of the event came from the Associated Press, which echoed some of the confusion as events unfolded:
The office of the governor of the region in the Ural Mountains said in a statement that many calls about injuries and damage to buildings had been received. But there were no immediate confirmed figures or specific reports on damage.
Reports conflicted on the event: A spokeswoman for Russia’s Emergency Ministry, Irina Rossius, told The Associated Press that there was a meteor shower, but another ministry spokeswoman, Elena Smirnikh, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying it was a single meteorite.The ministry said some fragments fell near the town of Satka, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) from the regional capital city of Chelyabinsk.
Within minutes videos were flying across the web (see two below), depicting the single white streak that looked a bit like an approaching jet while still distant. As it approached, it somewhat ominously took shape as a frothing contrail and it became clear it was going to make impact of some kind. As it flared past one car camera, it looked like a bomb exploding (see photo above); then, as it made its final descent, came within view of the tops of building before finally exploding.
The Brisbane Times gave an early report reflecting the first headcount of the injured:
The Russian Emergencies Ministry reported a meteoroid exploded in the skies above the Urals region, sending a shock wave that shattered windows, hurting about 100 people.
“A meteorite disintegrated above the Urals, partially burning up in the lower atmosphere,” the local office of the national emergencies ministry said in a statement.
“Fragments of the meteorite reached Earth, falling in sparsely populated areas in the Chelyabinsk region,” it said.
The statement said “numerous calls of panic” had been received.
‘‘A serious meteor fell,’’ billionaire Sergey Galitskiy, chief executive officer of OAO Magnit, Russia’s biggest food retailer, said in a post on his Twitter account. ‘‘At our hypermarket in Emanzhelinsk, windows were blown out, the roof shook, there was a strong shock wave.’’
Russia’s public health chief, Gennady Onishchenko, stated initially that there were around 100 injuries reported, most due to broken glass. At the time, he clarified that none required major medical intervention. That information, however, was later amended, with more recent reports putting the number of injured as high as 400 (as mentioned above), with at least three seriously.
Stories came in throughout the day of panic, nerves on edge, many people claiming they were terrified the meteor would hit with full force. And though the videos clearly show the low flying object streaking past, emergency officials say the blast happened “at 10,000-metre altitude.” The BOOM was explosive; residents felt the shockwaves, car alarms went off and even mobile phones service was interrupted. [Source]
Fortunately, for all of its flash and bang, the meteorite was small, probably no bigger than a basketball. A larger piece of rock might have made it to the ground with devastating results. Still, it appears damage from the explosion was not insignificant. Al Jazeera reports that Vadim Kolesnikov, an interior ministry spokesperson, confirmed that the 6000 sq. ft. roof of a zinc factory had collapsed (though it is not known whether the collapse was caused by meteorites or by a shock wave from one of the explosions). When the meteor was first noticed, traffic ground to a halt and people huddled in doorways in terror.
Officials said a part of the meteorite fell 80km from the town of Satki, itself 100km west of the regional centre.
Schools were closed for the day across the region after the impact blew out windows of buildings and temperatures had plunged in central Russia to -18 degrees Celsius (0 degrees Fahrenheit).
The Chelyabinsk region is Russia’s industrial heartland, filled with smoke-chugging factories and other huge facilities that include a nuclear power plant and the massive Mayak atomic waste storage and treatment centre.
A spokesman for Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy state corporation, said that its operations remained unaffected. [Source]
Many around the world are following this story with great interest. It seems our fascination with meteors and asteroids is wrapped up in the appeal and intrigue of space exploration, the mysteries and wonders of the stars and planets around us. When we ponder how small our Earth is in the context of outer space, the potential of impact with a meteor is not far-fetched. Thousands of meteors hit the earth daily, though most are the size of grains of rice; a few come in sizes closer to a baseball, even a basketball, and every few months or so a meteor the size of a house hits. By definition, a meteoroid is a piece of rock, up to the size of a boulder, that causes a meteor, or visible trace, as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. Pieces that make it to Earth are known as meteorites, making today’s event, more accurately, a meteorite hit. [Source]
And speaking of asteroids, scientists tell us one will be coming our way, very closely our way, later today, Friday, February 15th: Asteroid 2012 DA14 is predicted to make the closest recorded pass of an asteroid — about 17,150 miles (28,000 kilometers) from Earth. Click here for more information.
Back in Russia, it turns out even a meteor event comes with political implications. According to the Huffington Post report, Russian leaders reacted…well, politically:
The dramatic events prompted an array of reactions from prominent Russian political figures. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, speaking at an economic forum in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, said the meteor could be a symbol for the forum, showing that “not only the economy is vulnerable, but the whole planet.”
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist leader noted for vehement statements, said “It’s not meteors falling, it’s the test of a new weapon by the Americans,” the RIA Novosti news agency reported.
This video captures the sound and point of explosion:
Below is a longer video with a bit more lead-up to the explosion: