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Is Russia Marked For Meteors?

Feb 15, 2013
Originally published on August 17, 2013 8:53 am

Russians might be forgiven for thinking they have a big, fat celestial bull's-eye painted on their heads.

After all, Friday's spectacular meteor impact near Chelyabinsk prompted many people to recall a bit of history - that a similar (though much bigger) such incident occurred at Tunguska in Siberia just over a century ago. Another big one, though less known, occurred at a place called Sikhote-Alin, also in Russia, in 1947.

The so-called 'Tunguska event' of 1908 produced an explosion comparable to a hydrogen bomb, flattening hundreds of square miles of forest. Russia's Pravda was quick to draw comparisons with Friday's event.

In an interview with the newspaper, Maxim Shingarkin, deputy chairman of the Duma Committee on Natural Resources, Environment and Ecology, was quoted as saying the "the phenomenon that we could observe in Chelyabinsk this morning was similar, although it was of a much smaller scale [than Tunguska]."

So, is Russia just one giant meteor magnet?

In a way yes, says Clark Chapman, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

"The best answer is just that Russia is by far the largest land area in the world and therefore it's just a greater likelihood that it will get struck several times more often than any other places," he says.

Chapman agrees that the Chelyabinsk meteor on Friday is much smaller than the one that smashed into Tunguska, which was probably about 100 feet across.

"This one, it's hard to tell," he says. "We really don't know how big it is, [but] it's meters in size, rather than tens of meters in size."

Paul Chodas, a scientist at the Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasedena, Calif., thinks Friday's strike could be of historic proportions.

"It was indeed a large fireball, probably the largest fireball since the Tunguska event that hit Siberia in 1908," Chodas says.

He says it was probably about 50 feet across before it hit the atmosphere, making it roughly half the size of the Tunguska object, but only a third as big as DA14, an asteroid that just coincidentally happens to making a close flyby (and near miss) of Earth right now.

(In case you slept through grade school science, here's a quick primer on the difference between meteors, meteorites and asteroids)

Scientists have been tracking DA14, but didn't know about the Chelyabinsk object, Chapman says, adding that there's no connection between the two other than an "amazing coincidence" that they are happening on the same day.

"It would have been possible to see [the Chelyabinsk meteor] by some optical tracking plans that are in the works, but really aren't operational yet," he says. "We normally can't find them unless they are a much bigger object than struck Russia."

Funding for those projects can be difficult to come by, Chapman says, but he expects that "consciousness will be raised" by Friday's impact and the passing of DA14.

"These are real events and real events do a lot more than theory in raising awareness," he says.

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