Meteor over Russia strikes terror, leaves nearly 1,000 hurt
Published Friday, February 15, 2013 6:09AM EST
Last Updated Friday, February 15, 2013 4:34PM EST
Scientists estimate the meteor that streaked across central Russia, emitting a window-shattering shockwave before disintegrating and raining fragments to the ground below, burst into the atmosphere with the power of a small atomic bomb.
In a statement, the Russian Academy of Sciences said the meteor was likely the size of an SUV, weighed 10,000 kilograms, and streaked into the sky from space at a speed of at least 54,000 km/h releasing several kilotons of energy as it flew.
When the meteor lit up the sky in the Chelyabinsk region of Russia's Ural Mountains, 1,500 kilometres east of Moscow, its unexpected appearance struck terror into the hearts of many.
"There was panic. People had no idea what was happening," Chelyabinsk resident Sergey Hametov told The Associated Press by telephone.
"We saw a big burst of light, then went outside to see what it was and we heard a really loud, thundering sound."
That noise was the hypersonic boom that Chelyabinsk officials say blew out an estimated 100,000 square metres of glass windows.
Officials in the city of approximately 1 million people said about 3,000 buildings were damaged, including a zinc factory where much of the roof collapsed. It wasn't initially clear whether the damage was caused by meteorites or a shock wave from one of the explosions.
Of the nearly 1,000 people injured, Russia's Interior Ministry said most were hurt by shattering glass. Forty-four of them, the ministry said, were hospitalized as a result.
In addition to the widespread injuries, however, the sight of an apparent fireball streaking through the sky -- on the same day Asterdoid 2012 DA14 was widely anticipated to come within record proximity of Earth -- caused panic that touched many others, including many said to have spilled into the streets crying that the world was ending.
The European Space Agency has since announced in a tweet that its experts had determined there was no connection between the meteor strike and the asteroid flyby.
But the horror of the meteor's final moments remain.
Michael Garnett, a Canadian living in Chelyabinsk recalled being shaken awake by a powerful blast.
"I was lying in bed this morning and I hit my snooze bar to get nine minutes of extra sleep and all of a sudden... I heard this loud bang that shook my apartment. The light fixtures were swaying back and forth, I live up on the 20th floor so I was scared," he told CTV's Canada AM via Skype early Friday.
"I was sure whatever happened, happened right in my building, it was that powerful. I thought maybe there was an explosion or a plane crash but as soon as I opened my window and saw this streak across the sky I was pretty sure it was something special I wasn't going to be able to figure out myself."
Meteors typically cause sizeable sonic booms when they enter the atmosphere because they travel much faster than the speed of sound. Injuries related to such incidents, however, are extremely rare.
A six-metre-wide crater has been found in the area of Chebarkul, near a reservoir where fragments of the meteor are known to have fallen.
According to a report from the ITAR-Tass news agency, citing military spokesperson Yaroslavl Roshchupkin, the crater could come from space fragments striking the ground.
Such fragments, when they break off a meteor and actually strike the ground, are known as meteorites.
In turn, meteors are usually small fragments of comets or asteroids that have broken off and enter the Earth's atmosphere. Typically, they burn up in the atmosphere without ever becoming meteorites.
While rare, several major meteors and meteorite strikes have been recorded, including the largest-ever example approximately 5,000 kilometres east of Friday's example.
That explosion, which struck Tunguska in 1908 packing energy equivalent to a 10-megaton bomb, levelled some 80 million trees.
With files from The Associated Press