Space Storm

A 10-ton meteor exploded over Russia on Friday

February 19, 2013

A meteorite is seen as a burst of light in the skies above the Ural Mountains in central Russia on February 15.

It was a clear day in central Russia on Friday, February 15. Then, at around 9:20 a.m. local time, people in the town of Chelyabinsk heard an explosion and watched a big streak of light burst across the blue skies over the nearby Ural Mountains. “We saw a big burst of light,” Chelyabinsk resident Sergey Hametov told the Associated Press. “[We] went outside to see what it was, and we heard a really loud thundering sound.”

What happened? A 10-ton meteor, moving at a speed of 33,000 miles per hour, had exploded about two dozen miles above the surface of the Earth. The explosion was as powerful as dozens of atomic bombs. It was the largest recorded space rock to hit Earth in more than a century.

Fragments of the meteor fell to Earth in a low-population area of the Chelyabinsk region. The blast injured nearly 1,500 people and damaged buildings and other property. On Monday, about 46 people remained hospitalized as a result of the explosion. Large numbers of workers and volunteers have begun to fix the damage that was caused by the explosion. Governor Mikhail Yurevich estimates the damage will cost $33 million to repair. He promised to have all broken windows in the frigid region replaced within a week.

Flying Through Space

Meteors are meteoroids—small pieces of space debris, usually from a comet or asteroid—that enter the Earth’s atmosphere. They can appear as streaks of light in the sky, and are sometimes called falling stars. Most meteors burn up in the atmosphere, but those that hit the surface of the Earth are called meteorites.

Scientists have begun searching for major fragments of the meteor for testing. So far, they’ve found more than 50 tiny fragments (about half an inch each) in the Ural Mountain’s ice-covered Chebarkul Lake, where the meteor left a 20-foot-wide hole in the ice. So far, divers have found no large fragments at the bottom of the lake.

Tons of space debris flies around Earth every day. On the same day as the Russian meteor, a 150-foot asteroid flew past Earth and came within 17,000 miles of the surface. That’s closer to Earth than some satellites. According to astronomers, the two events are not connected to each other.

NASA keeps a close eye on the skies for all near-Earth space objects, in case any threaten Earth. The space agency—and others—are working on ways to redirect incoming asteroids away from Earth.

Click here to view more photos from the meteor.

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