Airburst Explained: NASA Addresses the Russian Meteor Explosion

by Nancy Atkinson on February 15, 2013

Want to stay on top of all the space news? Follow @universetoday on Twitter

A small asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere early Friday, February 15, 2013 over Chelyabinsk, Russia at about 9:20 am local Russian time. Initial estimates, according to Bill Cooke, lead for the Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, is that the asteroid was about 15 meters (50 feet) in diameter, with a weight of 7,000 metric tons. It hit the atmosphere at a shallow angle of about 20 degrees, at a speed of about 65,000 km/h (40,000 mph).

It traveled through the atmosphere for about 30 seconds before breaking apart and producing violent airburst ‘explosion’ about 20-14 km (12-15 miles) above Earth’s surface, producing an energy shockwave equivalent to a 300 kilotons explosion. That energy propagated down through the atmosphere, stuck the city below – the Chelyabinsk region has a population of about 1 million — and windows were broken, walls collapsed and there were other reports of minor damage throughout the city.

The official impact time was 7:20:26 p.m. PST, or 10:20:26 p.m. EST on Feb. 14 (3:20:26 UTC on Feb. 15).

Cooke said that at this time, the known damage is not due to fragments of the bolide striking the ground but only from the airburst. “There are undoubtedly fragments on the ground, but at the current time no pieces have been recovered that we can verify with any certainty,” Cooke said during a media teleconference today.

A meteorite flashes across the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia, taken from a dashboard camera.

A meteorite flashes across the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia, taken from a dashboard camera.

He added that the space rock appears to be “an asteroid in nature,” – likely a rocky asteroid since it broke apart in the atmosphere. It wasn’t detected by telescopes searching for asteroids because of its small size, but also because “it came out of the daylight side of our planet – was in the daylight sky and as a result was not detected by any earth based telescopes. #RussianMeteor was not detected from Earth because it came from the daylight side (i.e the Sun-facing side of Earth).

The meteor left a trail in the sky about 480 km (300 miles) long.

Cooke, along with Paul Chodas, a research scientist in the Near Earth Object Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said that asteroids this size hit the Earth on average about once every 100 years. “These are rare events, and it was an incredible coincidence that it happened on the same day as the close flyby of Asteroid 2012 DA14,” Chodas said. “The two are not related in any way.”

The Russian meteor is the largest reported since 1908, when a meteor hit Tunguska, Siberia. Oddly enough, the Tunguska event was caused by an object about the size of 2012 DA14, the asteroid that flew by Earth today harmlessly. The meteor, which was about one-third the diameter of asteroid 2012 DA14, became brighter than the Sun, as seen in some of the videos here. Its trail was visible for about 30 seconds, so it was a grazing impact through the atmosphere.

There were certainly pieces that hit the ground, according to Jon M. Friedrich from Fordham University. “For something that created a bolide and sonic detonation of the size seen in Russia, it seems likely that fragments reached the earth,”Friedrich said in an email to Universe Today. “In fact, there are reports of a crater in a frozen lake and other locations that were in the path of the meteor. The resulting fragments are not likely large – I’d expect some of the absolute largest to be football to basketball sized, with many fragments being smaller, like marbles.”

Chodas said that defending the Earth against tiny asteroids like this is challenging issue, “something that is not currently our goal,” he said. “NASA’s goal it to find the larger asteroids. Even 2012 DA14 is on the smaller size. The tiny asteroid that hit over Russia is very difficult to detect, an in order to defend the Earth, the problem and issue there is to find these things early enough to do something about it if we wanted to divert it. While smaller asteroids are easier to divert, they are much more difficult to detect.”

“What an amazing day for near Earth objects,” Chodas said, “with two events happening on the same day.”

The lead animation courtesy of Analytical Graphics, Inc.


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with the Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy podcasts. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

  • Craig Temple

    Credit to NdGT: Asteroids are nature’s way of asking: “How’s that space program coming along?”

    • Woodrow Wotan

      Earth is the cradle of our species.

      No species is meant to live forever in the cradle.

      • Organ_Morgan

        All species leave their cradles, so this is merely a truism.
        Do you have a point?

        • Woodrow Wotan

          Yeah, but I’m combing my hair over it nowadays.

  • GregtheThird

    What are the odds of these two asteroids getting this close to earth on the same day? It would seem like the heavens are trying to get our attention. Mystics and occultists will probably be talking about the portent of this day for centuries.

    • Olaf2

      Odds? A lot of asteroids are coming close that size. It is only because it entered the atmosphere that it was noticed.

      And so far the Mystics and oculists FAILED to predict this one. And those that they predict FAIL also.

      • Alejandro Garcia Crespo

        That’s a WIN straight answer xD

    • Skipdallas

      I seriously doubt that anyone will be talking about this next month let alone centuries from now.

  • danangel

    A warning shot across our bow. Are we going to do anything with it? Seems someone is trying to wake us up.

    • zkank

      I hope you’re not suggesting that somehow this was controlled by “someone”!

      “Warning shot”?! Too silly!

      As silly as one CNN news anchor last week suggesting that DA14 2012 might somehow be a result of “global warming”.

  • Tony Power

    Could it be that there are a swarm of these meteors out there associated to the DA14 2012 body that are too small to be detected by our radars?

    • donarb

      Asteroids are not detected using radar. They essentially take multiple pictures of the sky and compare them looking for moving objects. But there is a limit to the size of objects that can be detected.

      • Tony Power

        The US Space surveillance network can detect objects out to 30,000 KM, shouldn’t this be able to detect these objects?

        • Tony Trenton

          At +- 65,000 km /hr ? That leaves less than half an hour to do something!

          What do you suggest ?

      • space_sailor

        we know orbits of even smaller asteroids. One of them (size 8m) passed Earth at 190.000 km last week. So I`m suprised that we completly missed that one. BTW – there should be a lot of debrises so I`m looking for news what kind of body it was.

  • Tom Watson

    7,000 metric tons is that right? all other sources say it was about 10 tons…anyone??

    • kurteren

      That was the initial estimate made without any real data, and the news agencies just repeat that figure as if it’s somehow valid. The higher estimate is based on data now available, and is therefore more reliable. It’s quite certain that a ten ton object would not be able to create an explosion of this magnitude, even if it was instantly completely vaporized.

  • Chetan Chauhan

    Wow , unimaginable.
    That thing was moving relative to us @ almost 20km/SECOND . The kinetic energy with something travelling at that speed is phenomenal.
    The funny thing is everyone was afraid and worked up about 2012 DA14 hitting the Earth. Instead this meteor came right out of the blue and actually hit the Earth. It would be very interesting to find out what size , and whether it was a metallic meteorite.

    Also a trail of 480km means the meteorite was in the Sky for hardly 20-30 seconds travelling @ 20km/second.

  • Dav_Daddy

    It is one heck of a coincidence this asteroid hitting roughly 12 hrs before another one is supposed to make a close pass.

    However seeing as how this one was about 300,000 miles in front of and coming from a different direction than 2012 DA14 it is just that a coincidence.

    I found a good graphic showing the different trajectories here:

  • Aqua4U

    Subject: Population control, the hard way.

    Our poor little planet is suffering from an overabundance of large brained but stupid hominids. There are FAR too many people on this planet for a reasonable and sustainable future for our species? We have poisoned the land, sea and atmosphere with our greed driven activities. We live in a time where a ‘tipping point’ toward extinction has become a very real probability. It doesn’t look good for our children – yet might become a moot subject if ‘the problem’ suddenly evaporated with an instantaneous cosmic intervention.

    Perhaps an advanced ETI might choose to intervene (again?) on the behalf of lesser species, giving them a chance to evolve, with a large asteroid or comet? Benevolence in a far removed consciousness may appear destructive at best? But as fire releases seeds from some kinds of trees.. nature finds a way.

  • danangel

    Right you are. Maybe I could have said it better, but something has to wake up enough people to force the government to take notice and actually prepare for when that near miss is a little too ‘near’.

Previous post:

Next post: