What was The Chelyabinsk Meteor?

Meteors are one of the fascinating things that remind us of what lies beyond our spherical home. When a space rock somehow enters our planet’s atmosphere, common people can’t help but wonder, as they gaze at the great spinning ball of fire drawing a straight line at the sky. ‘Shooting stars’ as we call them (although not exactly stars themselves), are a rare phenomenon, and to witness such with one’s own eyes is indeed a magical experience of a lifetime.

One of the most famous and pretty recent major meteor sightings was in Chebarkul, Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia. But, before we get to know that Russian meteor, let us first clarify some important points. For some of us who are somehow baffled about the term we should be using, just a quick reference here. 

Asteroid vs. Meteor vs. Meteorite

an asteroid

Is Chelyabinsk an asteroid? A meteor? Or a meteorite? Well, these terms (not to mention those not listed here) seem to be pretty synonymous; after all, they are all rocks from space. However, you’d be surprised how much they differ and how subtle those differences are at the same time.

Asteroids are a lot bigger and more solid compared to meteors and meteorites. They usually orbit the sun and are mostly found in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. However, some of these space rocks would accidentally go off-course due to gravitational pulls and end up floating around near our home planet. Although smaller than regular planets, asteroids can be extremely cataclysmic, given the right velocity and size. 

When tiny versions of asteroids (called meteoroids) somehow reach the Earth’s premises, they make a streak of bright light as they vaporize into finer specks of dust. These shooting or falling stars are called meteors. In other words, meteors are the visible phenomenon made by space rocks exploding mid-air, or in more scientific terms, a meteor airburst.

Some of these objects reach the surface despite the pressure brought by the atmosphere and the object’s velocity. When the space rock reaches the Earth’s surface intact, the material is called a ‘meteorite.’

Hence, the space rock we are featuring in this article is an example of a meteor.

The Chelyabisnk Meteor

A full view of the smoke trail with the bulbous section corresponding to a mushroom cloud's cap.

The Chelyabinsk Meteor left Russian onlookers and the social media in awe on February 15, 2013. The space rock sneaked into the atmosphere nonchalantly, with a bright light and heatwave following its trail. Scientists eventually identified the meteor as the largest known object to enter the planet’s atmosphere since the Tunguska event in 1908. 

The 20-meter-wide object, which scientists estimate to be about 12 000 to 13 000 metric tons, was seen in its majesty across the Russian skies. Even people from up to 100 km or 62 miles away could have observed the falling object. Traveling at a speed of about 19 kilometers per second, or approximately 50 times the speed of sound, would be a devastating occurrence had it not exploded mid-flight.

The meteor’s origin might be unclear, but according to scientists, it most probably came from the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. It is speculated to be an asteroid fragment that has lost its course and was forced to collide with Earth due to gravitational pulls. Research on the fragments also implied that the original asteroid fragment had endured several collisions before finally making its way to Earth.

An Undetected Rock Intruder 

It was ridiculous and scary at the same time that the Chelyabinsk meteor was initially undetected and made its surprise entrance into the planet’s atmosphere like a boss. Scientists somehow missed the space rock plummeting towards the Earth since its source direction was closer to the sun. Without this prior knowledge, the appearance of a fireball in the early morning sky seems to be a foreboding event to locals.

The sighting started at 09:20:21 Yekaterinburg time, with locals claiming to see a super bolide burning brighter than the sun itself. NASA later confirmed the entry of the space object captured by the weather satellite Meteosat 9. In the aftermath of the meteor phenomenon, residents reported having smelled burning odors and the likes of gun powder and sulfur.

An Unprecedented Danger

Shattered windows in the foyer of the Chelyabinsk Drama Theatre

Several amateur video footage of the spectacular meteor surfaced on the internet moments after its first sighting. Many people across the globe found the event to be pretty fascinating. Still, to the residents, the meteor was a horrifying event that could have claimed many lives under different circumstances. The momentary light and heat it emitted were more than enough to burn people’s skin and cause discomfort to their eyes.

Reports claimed that over 200 people suffered eye and skin damage. But, they also suggest that most of the injuries were not directly related to the meteor itself. The meteor airburst created a massive blast so powerful it blew off numerous windows and tore down buildings within its range. In Chelyabinsk alone, the buildings damaged were over 3000.

Its extensive ground damage indirectly injured around 1,500 people. These people were accidentally hit by broken windows, collapsed ceilings, or falling debris. The immense energy carried by this rock coming from space was unanticipated. Fortunately, no casualty was reported.

The Aftermath

Hours after the event, the unexpected entry of the space rock has raised the alarm to the common residents and then Prime Minister of Russia himself, Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev stated that the event only solidifies that our home planet is vulnerable to meteors. Hence the need for a space guard system to defend it should a similar occurrence happen in the future.

The meteoritic phenomenon was not new, as we have come across several films that feature these types of cataclysmic events. And although most of the time in the movies we always triumph, there are no do-overs in real life. The Chelyabinsk meteor opened a lot of discussions as to how the world we prepare itself should a similar event threaten us once more.

For example, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs prompted the investigation of forming an “Action Team on Near-Earth Objects.” The team is directed to be a global asteroid warning network system in the face of the approaching near-Earth object named 2012 DA14. Another one is the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System which could now predict events similar to Chelyabinsk a day or so in advance.

Additionally, some scientists also proposed a directed-energy weapon technology that could eliminate the threat of asteroids. NASA also doubled its effort to study and scan near-Earth objects and intensified its preparation and mitigation protocols through extensive simulation testings