Astrobiology Top 10: The Russian Meteorite

A meteor seen flying over Russia on Feb. 15 at 3:20: 26 UTC impacted Chelyabinsk. Preliminary information is that this object was unrelated to asteroid 2012 DA14, which made a safe pass by Earth today. Image credit: Google Earth, NASA/JPL-Caltech

New information provided by a worldwide network of sensors has allowed scientists to refine their estimates for the size of the object that entered the atmosphere and disintegrated in the skies over Chelyabinsk, Russia, at 7:20:26 p.m. PST, or 10:20:26 p.m. EST on Feb. 14 (3:20:26 UTC on Feb. 15).

The estimated size of the object, prior to entering Earth’s atmosphere, has been revised upward from 49 feet (15 meters) to 55 feet (17 meters), and its estimated mass has increased from 7,000 to 10,000 tons. Also, the estimate for energy released during the event has increased by 30 kilotons to nearly 500 kilotons of energy released. These new estimates were generated using new data that had been collected by five additional infrasound stations located around the world – the first recording of the event being in Alaska, over 6,500 kilometers away from Chelyabinsk. The infrasound data indicates that the event, from atmospheric entry to the meteor’s airborne disintegration took 32.5 seconds. The calculations using the infrasound data were performed by Peter Brown at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

The after-effects of the Tunguska event in Siberia. The damage is thought to have been caused by an asteroid exploding in the atmosphere before it could hit the ground. The energy released by the explosion is estimated to be the equivalent of about 185 Hiroshima bombs. Credit: Smithsonian Institution

"We would expect an event of this magnitude to occur once every 100 years on average," said Paul Chodas of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "When you have a fireball of this size we would expect a large number of meteorites to reach the surface and in this case there were probably some large ones."

The trajectory of the Russia meteor was significantly different than the trajectory of the asteroid 2012 DA14, which hours later made its flyby of Earth, making it a completely unrelated object. The Russia meteor is the largest reported since 1908, when a meteor hit Tunguska, Siberia.

Based on the duration of the event, it was a very shallow entry. It was larger than the meteor over Indonesia on Oct. 8, 2009. Measurements are still coming in, and a more precise measure of the energy may be available later. The size of the object before hitting the atmosphere was about 49 feet (15 meters) and had a mass of about 7,000 tons.

The meteor, which was about one-third the diameter of asteroid 2012 DA14, was brighter than the Sun. Its trail was visible for about 30 seconds, so it was a grazing impact through the atmosphere.

Studying impact events on Earth is of great importance to astrobiologists. Long ago, meteorite impacts may have delivered materials that were important in the origins of life on our planet. Large impacts may have also played a role in shaping the evolution of the biosphere, triggering mass extinction events like the one that brought an end to the age of dinosaurs.


 

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