One of the most popular jokes was that the meteorite was supposed to fall on December 21 last year, where many believed the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world, but was delivered late by Russia’s notoriously inefficient postal service. Friday, the day after the feast of Saint Valentine’s, a meteor made headlines all over the world when it streaked across the sky and exploded over Russia’s Ural Mountains with the power of an atomic bomb. Like a major scene in a blockbuster film, the day was a spectacle with the sight of raining fireballs over a wide area and causing a shock wave that broke windows, tampered buildings and injured more than 1,000 people.
Meteoroids are tiny pieces of space debris, usually parts of asteroids or comets that are on a collision course with the planet Earth. They become meteors when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Most meteors burn up in the atmosphere, but if they survive the frictional heating and strike the surface of the Earth they are then termed as meteorites.
The spectacle of fireballs tremendously frightened many people in Russia. Some overly panicked elderly women declaring that the world was coming to an end. People heading to work in Chelyabinsk, city of about 1 million 930 miles east of Moscow, heard what sounded like an explosion, saw a bright light and then felt the shock wave, according to a Reuters correspondent in the industrial city 1,500 km (950 miles) east of Moscow.
Fortunately, even with the large number of injuries made by the asteroid, no deaths were reported. The Emergencies Ministry said 20,000 rescue and clean-up workers were sent to the region after President Vladimir Putin told Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov to ease the disruption and help the victims. The Interior Ministry said about 1,200 people had been injured, at least 200 of them children, and most from shards of glass.
From Chelyabinsk, a resident named Sergey Hametov said to The Associated Press by telephone that “There was panic. People had no idea what was happening, we saw a big burst of light, then went outside to see what it was and we heard a really loud, thundering sound.” Another local named Andrei, still from Chelyabinsk said “I was standing at a bus stop, seeing off my girlfriend, then there was a flash and I saw a trail of smoke across the sky and felt a shock wave that smashed windows.”
The Russian Academy of Sciences stated that the meteor — estimated to be about 10 tons and 49 feet wide — entered the Earth’s atmosphere at a hypersonic speed of at least 33,000 meters per hour (mph) and shattered into pieces about 18-32 miles above the ground. But even small asteroids pack a tremendous punch, explained Andrew Cheng of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory who was also the same person to have led a 2001 to 2002 NASA mission to orbit and land on an asteroid. A 10 meter size object already packs the same energy as of a nuclear bomb according to Cheng.
Chelyabinsk city authorities urged locals to stay indoors as much as possible and unless they needed to pick up their children from schools and kindergartens. Also, though warnings were made to locals not to approach unidentified objects, others quickly took to the Internet and put what they said were meteorite fragments up for sale. “Selling meteorite that fell on Chelyabinsk!” one hopeful seller, Vladimir, said on a popular Russian auction website. He attached a picture of a black piece of stone that on Friday afternoon was priced at 1,488 rubles ($49.46).
NASA’s director of planetary science, Jim Green called the back-to-back celestial events an amazing display. “This is indeed very rare and it is historic,” he said on NASA TV. “These fireballs happen about once a day or so, but we just don’t see them because many of them fall over the ocean or in remote areas.”