Russia meteor's origin tracked down


The BBC's Daniel Sandford said people described a ball of fire in the sky (First broadcast 15 Feb 2013)

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Astronomers have traced the origin of a meteor that injured about 1,000 people after breaking up over central Russia earlier this month.

Using amateur video footage, they were able to plot the meteor's trajectory through Earth's atmosphere and then reconstruct its orbit around the Sun.

As the space rock burned up over the city of Chelyabinsk, the shockwave blew out windows and rocked buildings.

The team, from Colombia, has published details on the Arxiv website.

Numerous videos of the fireball were taken with camera phones, CCTV and car-dashboard cameras and subsequently shared widely on the web. Furthermore, traffic camera footage of the fireball had precise time and date stamps.

Early estimates of the meteor's mass put it at ten tonnes; US space agency Nasa later estimated it to be between 7,000 and 10,000 tonnes. Nasa estimates the size of the object was about 17m (55ft).

Using the footage and the location of an impact into Lake Chebarkul, Jorge Zuluaga and Ignacio Ferrin, from the University of Antioquia in Medellin were able to use simple trigonometry to calculate the height, speed and position of the rock as it fell to Earth.

To reconstruct the meteor's original orbit around the Sun, they used six different properties of its trajectory through Earth's atmosphere. Most of these are related to the point at which the meteor becomes bright enough to cast a noticeable shadow in the videos.

Infographic The Chelyabinsk meteor (labelled ChM) appears to have been on an elliptical orbit around the Sun before it collided with Earth

The researchers then plugged their figures into astronomy software developed by the US Naval Observatory.

The results suggest the meteor belongs to a well known family of space rocks - known as the Apollo asteroids - that cross Earth's orbit.

Of about 9,700 near-Earth asteroids discovered so far, about 5,200 are thought to be Apollos. Asteroids are divided into different groups such as Apollo, Aten, or Amor, based on the type of orbit they have.

Dr Stephen Lowry, from the University of Kent, said the team had done well to publish so quickly.

"It certainly looks like it was a member of the Apollo class of asteroids," he told BBC News.

"Its elliptical, low inclination orbit, indicates a solar system origin, most likely from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Dr Lowry added: "Perhaps with more data, we can determine roughly where in the asteroid belt it come from."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 362.

    What strikes me about this story is how technology has dramatically lowered the cost and increased the opportunities for creating and sharing scientific analyses. A talented and curious team in Colombia, using mobile phone and dash-cam data from Russia and an analysis tool at NASA, quickly determined the likely origin of a major natural event and shared their findings with the world. Cool.

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    Other than satisfying intellectual curiosity, what does it matter where it came from? We still couldn't have done anything about it and for all the satellites and telescopes we have no one seems to have seen it coming in time to warn anyone on the ground.

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    Yesterday there were people saying studying tectonics is a waste of money, and today there are people saying studying near-Earth objects is a waste of money?

    It is a genuine mystery how people can be so short-sighted. The biggest extinction events in Earth's history have been linked to asteroid strikes & supervolcanoes at plate boundaries!

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    Why on Earth do people think that this is a non-issue simply because it already happened?
    It scares me that people think there is enough confidence in "it came from space" to prevent something similar occurring again. Can you seriously not think why it is important to identify the source? And refining/backing-up models of gravitational motion, improvement in tracking based on this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    If an object fifty five feet in diameter weighing 10,000 tonnes had landed on London or any other large city hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people would have been killed. What a pity people think the scientists who study such things are geeky anoraks whose work is of no interest. Knowing where it came from is important, there could be others and we might not be so lucky next time.


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