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Epic Fireball Over Russia

Our thanks to Phil Plait, who alerted us to this on Twitter. Several amazing videos are coming in from the Ural Mountains region of Russia, where a meteor provided an incredible show about an hour ago (midnight Eastern time), near the city of Chelyabinsk.

Plait (of Bad Astronomer fame) guesses that this object is unrelated to 2012DA14, a 50-meter asteroid that is passing very close to the Earth in several more hours.

So far, the only reporting on this we’ve seen is a Reuters report mistakenly labeling this a “meteor shower.” This is clearly not a shower but a single object, a meteor, which looks like it broke up, producing parallel trails as it burned up in a spectacular daytime fireball.

Then there’s this video which captures the meteor’s incredible sonic blast about 20 seconds in…


A Russian-speaking friend tells us the people that can be heard in the video are, not surprisingly, saying things like “Fuck!” and “No fucking way!”

Keep an eye on Plait’s Twitter feed, @BadAstronomer, for more info on this object. What a show!

Another great view…

Before the crazies take over and start claiming all sorts of nonsense, please keep in mind that it doesn’t take a very large object to create this kind of show. This bit of space debris might have only been about the size of your couch, but after floating around the solar system for eons, its orbit around the Sun finally brought it into an intersection with our atmosphere. [UPDATE: Astronomers are now saying it was a little larger than that, more like 50 feet across, and it did explode in the air, not just burn up.]

That’s all it takes to create this amazing phenomenon: a rock, our atmosphere, and incredible speed. The booming sounds that arrived later were sound waves that had traveled to observers on the ground from the object crashing into our atmosphere — there may have been no impact of the object with the ground. And from the videos we’re seeing, that appears to be the case. [There is now evidence that small fragments made it to the ground. Astronomers say they expect them to be mostly marble-sized.]

As Plait says, this meteor may have been unrelated to the asteroid that is passing by the Earth later today. The asteroid, 2012DA14, is 50 meters across — half a football field across, approximately — and if it ran into us would do MUCH more damage than this meteor. Plait is currently trying to get a directional on the meteor, which could tell us if it was associated with the asteroid or not.

UPDATE: The Russia Today report of the military shooting down this meteor is UTTER BULLSHIT. This meteor, although it was more spectacular than most, acted exactly the same way that millions of smaller meteors do every single day above this planet. These panicky reports will prove to be complete nonsense.

UPDATE FROM PHIL PLAIT: Plait is pretty sure now that this is unrelated to 2012DA14 because of its direction.

There are now reports that some debris from the meteor may have hit the ground, and some images of local fires are showing up. But Plait agrees with us that the sonic booms were likely from the object burning up in the atmosphere, not because of an impact with the ground. He also points out that there are no confirmed reports yet of meteorites from the object on the ground. (Just to be clear, the terminology: the object that ran into our atmosphere was a “meteoroid,” the phenomenon in the sky that we’re seeing in the videos was a “meteor,” and if fragments of it reached the ground, those will be “meteorites.” The term “meteor shower” does not apply to this single event. Also, the terms “fireball” or “bolide” are appropriate for a meteor that is this bright.)

Plait is saying that this happened a little earlier than we first reported, more like 9:30 PM Eastern.

— More dumbass headlines about a “meteor shower” instead of a meteor. It’s going to be tough to get rid of that meme.

UPDATE: We’re seeing in various places people starting to wonder why NASA or someone else couldn’t have warned Russia that this was coming. Please note what we said earlier — the object that caused this was probably no bigger than your couch, and therefore it was much too small to be detected before it got here.

In fact, we get hit with these fairly often, just not usually so big and bright. This event was unusual only in its magnitude. In all other ways it acted exactly as a meteor should.

Oh brother, even CNN is calling it a “meteor shower.”

Wow, the New York Times story is really, really bad. They don’t know the difference between a “meteor” and a “meteorite,” and they’re giving the impression of multiple objects in the sky. You could even read their opening paragraph to mean that meteorites hit buildings. Wow, that’s really irresponsible. This is the kind of rotten reporting that will fuel UFO theories — soon, we’ll be hearing about 20 different alien missiles shot down over different parts of Siberia. Grrrr.

Oh man, even the BBC is calling it a meteor shower. Just shoot me.

Jeez, even the science editor at MSNBC doesn’t know the difference between a meteor and a meteorite.

He writes: “The meteorite raced across the horizon, leaving a long white trail in its wake which could be seen as far as 125 miles away in Yekaterinburg.”

No, no, no. It was a meteor that raced across the sky. Eventually, some meteorites may be found on the ground. You’d think the damn science editor would get that right. Sigh. (At least he didn’t use the words “meteor shower.”)

Of course, you could rely on the Daily Mail using the most illiterate term of all, “meteorite shower,” which simply doesn’t exist. Herp derp.

Here’s an excellent story by the AP’s Jim Heintz (although we’ll wait for further confirmation on those meteorites in a reservoir…sounds dubious). Heintz carefully explains the difference between “meteoroid,” “meteor,” and “meteorite,” and also explains how the (erroneous) label “meteor shower” entered into the picture — from a spokesperson in Russia’s Emergency Ministry.

But after all that care taken by Heinz, HuffPo goes ahead and uses the wrong term for the headline. D’oh!

Oh, we just made the mistake of turning on the TV. CNN’s report was as illogical as possible. We are told there was a “meteor shower” that produced loud explosions which were followed by objects falling from the sky.

Christ. It almost doesn’t get worse than that. No wonder the crazy theories get going. Look, journalists who slept through astronomy class, please listen. This was a meteor of spectacular brightness that was caused by an object that was probably a few meters across (it will take time for astronomers to get a more exact estimate). The object broke apart as it was burning up in the sky above southern Russia. Its incredible speed as it impacted the atmosphere produced multiple sonic booms that shattered windows and caused other damage for hundreds of miles around, and falling glass from those sonic booms has reportedly injured hundreds of people. It’s unclear whether fragments of the original meteoroid actually reached the ground, but if they are found and confirmed, they will properly be called “meteorites.” But that’s not likely for a while. Is that clear?

Ha, Russian humor…



Posted by Tony Ortega on February 15, 2013 at 01:12


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