“Don’t wake me for the end of the world unless it has very good special effects.” -Roger Zelazny
It’s always the ones you least expect that get you the worst, it seems. I went to bed last night excited that Asteroid 2012 DA14, a 200,000 ton asteroid, was going to pass within just 28,000 km (or 17,000 miles) of Earth’s surface, which would make it the closest pass of an asteroid that large that we’ve ever observed.
I thought that would be the best way to celebrate today, which would be Galileo‘s 449th birthday. After all, it was Galileo who first discovered that there was no way that Earth could be at the center of all the heavens. By looking at Jupiter through a telescope, he discovered that it had its own set of large moons that very clearly orbited their own planet, indifferent to the workings of Earth.
We now know that these moons orbit Jupiter because of Jupiter’s gravity; this is the same reason all planets, moons and solid objects move the way they do in space. Jupiter is the second largest gravitational source in our Solar System, behind only the Sun. And since it’s been orbiting the Sun for over four billion years, it’s had literally hundreds of millions of passes by each object in the asteroid belt.
Every solar system has an asteroid belt, and here’s why: as you move away from the Sun (or any star), the temperature of the interplanetary space around you drops. Near the planet Mercury, interstellar space is somewhere around 800 °F, out by Pluto, it’s nearly -400 °F. But there’s a critical place — out beyond Mars but before Jupiter in our Solar System — where the temperature is too cold for water to exist in any state other than frozen ice.
And once you reach that point, you’re going to get little frozen chunks of ice and rock mixed together. So every solar system has an asteroid belt. But ours also has a large planet nearby, and over billions of years and millions of passes outside this asteroid belt, Jupiter changes the orbits of these rocky objects.
And these repeated gravitational interactions of asteroids with the other planets — primarily Jupiter — changes their orbits over time. This is important to us here on Earth for a few reasons, but nothing makes it more apparent than seeing the havoc a collision with one of these asteroids can wreak here on our world.
This is meteor crater, from an asteroid strike about 50,000 years ago, of an asteroid that was comparable in size (maybe 50 meters in diameter) to 2012 DA14, the one that just missed us today. Asteroids of this size — 40 meters or larger in diameter — strike Earth a couple of times every 100,000 years, and could wipe out an entire London-sized city if they struck there.
One of the big problems is that we only know of about 1% of the asteroids that are that size, so we can’t even tell when most of them are coming. It’s only the ones that we get a good view of for a long time that we can track well enough to predict when they’re going to strike us. The hardest ones to predict are the ones that come towards us from the direction of the Sun; we literally never see those coming.
Which is why it was such a shock when this meteor appeared in the skies over Russia early this morning!
Take a look from a different view; this is what happens when a roughly 50-tonne asteroid — a mix of ice, rock and other chemicals — enters the Earth’s atmosphere.
The physics of what’s going on here is amazing. Let’s do some Q&A about this:
Q: Why does it make a fireball in the sky?
A: The Solar System is a fast-moving place. Most objects move in excess of 25,000 miles per hour relative to Earth, and you probably think the wind was problematic when you put your arm out of the window while driving down the highway! At the astronomical speeds achieved by meteors, the outside of the meteor heats up tremendously, by many hundreds of degrees, and the fire you see is from a heat so hot that the meteor is disintegrating before your eyes.
Q: Why does it appear to explode in mid-path?
A: Because it really does explode! Think about it: you’re heating this mostly frozen ice-and-rock-ball by hundreds and hundreds of degrees. Inside the meteor, you’ve got frozen water, frozen methane, and other weird, carbon-rich molecules. What happens when you heat these ices up? They melt, and eventually boil. As this boiling causes fissures in the meteor, oxygen — common in our atmosphere but rare everywhere else — can combine with these combustible gases under very high heats.
And that combination of things very quickly goes boom.
Q: Why — like this one and the Tunguska event — do so many of these occur over Russia?
A: They don’t preferentially occur over Russia, if that’s what you’re asking. Events like these — I call them super-bolides — occur on average about once every few years. There was a comparable one, another 50-100 ton asteroid, that encountered our atmosphere and burned up over Indonesia in 2009; in reality, most of them occur over the ocean and so go unobserved and unrecorded.
The Tunguska event was special: it’s the largest one in recorded history, and was probably just a little smaller than the asteroid that made meteor crater. The reason these feel like they occur over Russia is simply because Russia has a huge amount of land area.
Q: Why didn’t we see this one coming?
A: First off, it’s small. It’s very difficult to see something that’s just two-three meters across until you get very close to it, even with the most powerful telescopes in the world. Even the most ambitious survey proposals of asteroids that could be potentially hazardous to Earth don’t go smaller than about ten times the volume of this one. And second off, it came from the direction of the Sun, the hardest direction to monitor. (Because if you’re going to build an expensive telescope, the first rule is do not fry your optics, which you’ll do if you point it too close to the Sun!)
Q: THIS IS A HOAX! IF IT WAS REAL WHY DIDN’T NASA PHOTOGRAPH IT FROM SPACE?
A: NASA doesn’t monitor all places on Earth all the time from space. But this part of the world was actually monitored at the time, by the EU’s Meteosat program. Above is the image of this meteor event from the Meteosat-10 satellite.
Q: How much damage did it cause, and how did it happen?
A: There was some localized property damage, and probably around 1,200 injured people. When the big “flash” (or explosion) occurs, both a sonic boom and an intense pressure wave emanate from the source. This can do things like blow out windows (imagine the damage if one hit New York City!), damage eardrums, and — in the case of Tunguska — knock even large objects completely over. The building above had its roof collapse from the blast.
But this doesn’t destroy the meteor, it just breaks it up into smaller chunks. Many of these fragments reach the surface, still traveling at speeds that are often in excess of terminal velocity and capable of causing some pretty intense damage, similar to a cannonball strike. The ice, below, had this giant hole created in it from a meteorite fragment.
So what you hear reports of come from a combination of the initial blast wave and the secondary falling debris.
Q: How long before the big one strikes, and all of humanity dies?
Believe it or not, an event like the one that caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs is thought to occur only every few hundred million years. These events occur at random, which means — like getting struck by lightning — there’s no way to predict it, not with our current state of knowledge.
But we could know this, what we’d have to do is find and start tracking each one of these potential Earth-killers, or any asteroid larger than a few kilometers in size. And we could do it with our current technology, too; all we’d have to do is invest in it.
Want to hear more about this meteor and have even more of your questions answered?
I’ll be on my local TV station tonight at 7 PM Pacific Time, and you can watch it live from anywhere in the world! See you then! The video permalink is up here, and you can watch the segment embedded below!
UPDATE: Just got my hands on this information, courtesy of Peter Brown, the director at the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration in Canada and one of the world’s experts in meteor fireballs. Be aware that these numbers are still preliminary, and many of them — especially the size, mass and yield — may change.
What follows are *initial* information gleaned for multiple instrumental sources recording various aspects of the Feb 15, 2013 airburst over Chelaybinsk, Russia (55.2N, 61.4E)
1. Time: The time of the main flare/airburst was 03:20:26 UT on Feb 15, 2013; the fireball began ablation about 30 secs before this time.
2. Based on the long duration of the event and videos, it is clear this was a very shallow entry (certainly less than 20 degrees, maybe more shallow).
3. It is *not* related to 2012 DA14
4. Energy: This is perhaps the hardest value to pin down so early in this investigation. From multiple sensors using multiple technologies a best initial estimate of the total energy of the event is about 300 kilotons of TNT equivalent = ~10^15 J). This could easily be in error by a factor of two. I am confident, however that it is in excess of 100 kTons, making it the largest recorded event since the 1908 Tunguska explosion.
5. Speed: The fireball entered the atmosphere at 18 km/s
6. Damage: The airblast clearly caused window breakage and light structural damage in downtown Chelaybinsk. The exact overpressure at which window failure occurs tends to be probabilistic and varies by construction design (ANSI S2.20, 1983). Normally some damage begins to occur around 500 Pa of overpressure, widespread window damage is expected to occur up to around ten-20 times this value. As the fireball had a shallow trajectory, the cylindrical blast wave would have propagated directly to the ground and would be expected to be intense. This could be further compounded by any fragmentation, quasi-spherical blasts. My impression is that the key here is that the terminal part of the fireball (probably between 15-20 km altitude) occurred almost directly over Chelaybinsk; this was perhaps the single greatest contributor to the blast damage (short range to the main part of the terminal detonation).
7. Comparators: The Sikhote-Alin fall (Feb 12, 1947) in the former Soviet Union was the equivalent of about 10 kilotons TNT, BUT as an iron impactor much of this energy was deposited at the ground rather than at altitude. The Oct 8, 2009 Indonesia event is the most recent similar event at about 50 kTons, but over the ocean (paper attached for quick reference).
8. Size: The pre-impacting asteroid was about 15 meters in diameter and had a mass of ~7000 tonnes.