Describe the Universe with as many poetic adjectives as you can find in a crystal bowl of candy hearts, but the one word that truly encapsulates the depthless vessel is "ironic." While we were singularly focused on 2012 DA 14, the cricket-pitch-wide asteroid that swept across our sights Friday, another unseen interloper passed below the radar and exploded above the Chelyabinsk region within Russia's Ural mountains. Now, ordinarily, such a bait and switch parlor trick would be ripe fodder for humor (or our clumsy attempt at humor). However, this surprise attack is no occasion for mirth: more than 900 people were injured; four dozen seriously enough to be hospitalized. Two very unfortunate people have been committed to intensive care. Windows shattered; car alarms sounded and a powerful shock waves propagated radially away from the ground's detonation point -one that might have been as much as 20 miles below the actual explosion. Fragments fell around a wide area not yet measured.
Witnesses reported observing a fiery display as the "meteor" entered the comparatively thicker layer of the lower stratosphere. Video footage shows thunder-cloud thick contrails extending across the sky in the asteroid's wake: eerily reminiscent of the doomed Challenger contrails that trailed off into nothing. The blast was reported at 9:20 a.m. local time (10:20 p.m. EST Thursday night.)
This undetected asteroid weighed 10 tons and roared through the atmosphere at speeds exceeding 33,000 miles an hour. That it went unnoticed is not surprising: its diameter is estimated to have been about 10 meters, a fraction of DA 2012's size. NASA's aim to detect such Potentially Hazardous Asteroids started in earnest only a few years ago. And, those researchers involved in the project concede that they do not expect to find all of the "small ones," i.e., asteroids with diameters equal to or smaller than 10 meters. At least not straight away.
Today's catastrophe, however, will likely provide a greater impetus for the world's space agencies to locate and track any body capable of inflicting such damage. As was true in 1908, when another celestial body (identification not yet established) exploded over Tunguska (in Siberia), these minor asteroids can wreak havoc and destruction without any warning whatsoever.
Southworth Science Lecture Series 2015-2016: 'What's in Portlander's Trash?" Thursday, November 19, 2015 at 7:00 p.m.
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