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Russia’s unexpected close encounter

John Lennon famously wrote that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Apparently that’s true for NASA, as well.

Yesterday, the star-gazing world craned their necks towards near-Earth asteroid 2012 DA14 as it passed just 27,700 km from the surface of the Earth: to put that in perspective, that’s closer than many of our orbiting weather and telecommunications satellites. As the big day approached, NASA affirmed that they were absolutely confident the 50-metre asteroid would safely bypass our planet in the closest “close shave” in living memory.

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2012 DA14, the close encounter we were all expecting. Source: NASA / Wikimedia Commons

So imagine everybody’s surprise yesterday morning when residents of Chelyabinsk, Russia saw a spectacular fireball streak across the sky, travelling at 44 times the speed of sound. It was caused by a meteor that exploded as it entered the atmosphere, triggering a shock wave that shattered glass across the city and reportedly injured hundreds of people (mostly minor glass-related injuries).

Amateur footage of the meteor fireball in Russia. Video source: RussiaToday

Initial media reports were rife with speculation, but NASA has now released a statement confirming that the incident was unrelated to the near-miss that occurred 15 hours later. Instead, the culprit in Russia was a 15-metre meteor that sneaked under the radar while we were all obsessing over 2012 DA14.

According to NASA’s official website:

[…] The trajectory of the Russia meteor was significantly different than the trajectory of the asteroid 2012 DA14, making it a completely unrelated object. Information is still being collected about the Russia meteor and analysis is preliminary at this point. In videos of the meteor, it is seen to pass from left to right in front of the rising sun, which means it was traveling from north to south. Asteroid DA14’s trajectory is in the opposite direction, from south to north.

The incident in Russia is not entirely unprecedented in recorded history. On June 30 1908, it is believed that a meteor struck the atmosphere above a remote region of the country. This event, known at the Tunguska Event, similarly caused an explosion, one that knocked down 80 million trees over a 2000 square kilometre radius, wielding a force 1000 times that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. No casualties were reported, but the story would’ve been much different had the impact occurred above a more densely-populated region.

The past 24 hours have been a fascinating chapter in the field of modern astronomy. And, if nothing else, it tells me that we should definitely keep watching the skies, but perhaps the tiniest bit more closely this time.

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