There is little doubt that when people saw the meteor streaking across the Russian sky Friday, Feb. 15, they thought that scientists had gotten it all wrong. And when said meteor exploded some 950 miles east of Moscow, they most likely became certain that the massive asteroid said to pose little threat to the Earth had actually come a lot closer than expected -- especially those hundreds injured by its arrival. But the half-football-field-sized asteroid 2012 DA14 that scientists have been monitoring for a year wasn't the source of the meteor and hadn't come closer than expected. No, the meteoroid that exploded above Chelyabinsk in central Russia was simply a coincidental piece of space rock passing through at relatively the same time.
According to a Reuters report, the meteor left a trail 125 miles long. People saw a blinding flash just before the explosion. Car alarms went off. Cell phone communications were interrupted. The shockwave from the disintegrating meteor shattered windows, shook buildings, and knocked people to the ground. In fact, 514 people sought medical assistance, Russia's Emergencies Ministry reported. Of those, 112 saw an extended hospital stay.
Most injuries were from flying glass loosened by the meteor's detonation.
According to Rocosmos, Russia's space agency, the meteor was traveling at 19 miles per second when it flew apart, sending fireballs earthward.
The meteor explosion brings home the deadly threat of asteroids, meteors and comets that pass within the Earth's atmosphere. And Russia is no stranger to such calamitous outside forces. Back in 1908, a meteor or comet exploded over the Tunguska River area in Siberia with the force of 185 Hiroshima atomic bombs, leveling trees for over 800 square miles. That object has been estimated to be roughly the same size as asteroid 2012 DA14.
But 2012 DA14, set to make its flyby of Earth also on Friday, was calculated to come only as close as 17,100 miles at its closest (most put the passage at 17,200 miles). That would bring the asteroid within the geosynchronous orbit of most telecommunications satellites but still quite a distance from Earth.
The European Space Agency said -- via Twitter -- its experts had confirmed there was no connection between the near-miss asteroid and the meteor.
Given the damage caused by Friday's meteor, the space missile was undoubtedly much smaller than the Tunguska object or 2012 DA14. Doomsday scenarios of what might occur should such a massive bit of space rock hit the Earth (or detonate in mid-air) have spelled out a major catastrophe for anything within miles of ground zero.
In short, the Russian city and its environs were very fortunate.
Chelyabinsk was the hub of the Trans-Siberian Railway at the turn of the 20th century. Its current population exceeds one million.
The daily disruption and the injuries notwithstanding, Russians have taken the meteor in stride. Despite government warnings, some have even attempted to make a profit off of the meteorite debris. One seller posted a photo of a black stone on a Russian auction site claiming it to be a meteorite from the Chelyabinsk airburst. At the time of publication, it could be had for less than $50.