The Russian Meteor (and now Meteorite)

As was the big news out of Russia last week. there was a meteor that had burned up in the atmosphere and exploded in the Ural mountains. Estimates are that the rock from outer space weighed 7000 tons when it entered the atmosphere and was about 15 meters across. The explosion appeared as bright as the Sun and was apparently quite large as it injured up to 1000 people and was estimated to have a power of 470 kilotons of TNT. For comparison, the first atomic bombs had a yield in the range of 20 kilotons.

There has also been a search for the fragments of the meteor, and it looks like there has been success on that front, in particular in a lake close to where the meteor blew up in the sky. It appears there was a good-sized hole there, and 53 fragments have been found so far. (See also the Bad Astronomer on the hole left there by the meteor.)

While the explosion did hurt a lot of people, no one was critically hurt or killed, so that is rather fortunate. On the other hand, we didn’t have the ability to detect the meteor until it was screaming through the atmosphere, at which point it is too late to warn anybody. Unfortunately, current radar detection cannot pick up a meteor of this size, in stark contrast to Asteroid 2012 DA14, a rock 50 meters across and estimated to have a mass of 190,000 metric tons.

However, one point that I had seen on Twitter is worth noting here. Had this happened 30 years ago, we may all be dead now. Up until the fall of the Soviet Union, there was the ever-present threat of nuclear war between the USSR and USA, one that would well have ended all life as we know it. In his Cosmos series from 1980, Carl Sagan speculated that if the Tunguska event happened in his time over Russia, it would have been considered a potential attack with nuclear weapons. While the explosion in Russia recently was no where near as powerful, it could well have been thought of as a nuclear attack. In fact, one politician in Russia claims that it was just that, though he seems to be a well-known eccentric. Nonetheless, it would well have been the case that someone at the Kremlin had fast fingers and pushed to have them launch their weapons in a counter-attack.

Maybe they would have done what they could to make sure it was a rock and not an ICBM, but if the bombs were coming they would only have minutes to decide. Under such stress and panic, who can really say if someone like Brezhnev would not have fired missiles or launched bombers. It’s a frightening thought, and fortunately time did not have a meteor strike in store for Mother Russia during the 1970s or 80s. The same thing could well be true if it happened in Canada and Nixon had his finger near the button. Even more than missing Asteroid 2012 DA14, we dodged the bullet.

In the mean time, however, we have the future to consider. Do we want to look for meteors more vigorously now with this wake-up call?


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