CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A space rock even bigger than the meteor that exploded like an atom bomb over Russia could drop out of the sky unannounced at any time and wreak havoc on a city. And Hollywood to the contrary, there isn’t much the world’s scientists and generals can do about it.
But some former astronauts want to give the world a fighting chance.
They’re hopeful Friday’s cosmic coincidence — Earth’s close brush with a 150-foot asteroid, hours after the 50-foot meteor struck in Russia — will draw attention to the dangers lurking in outer space and lead to action, such as better detection and tracking of asteroids.
“After today, a lot of people will be paying attention," said Rusty Schweickart, who flew on Apollo 9 in 1969, helped establish the planet-protecting B612 Foundation and has been warning NASA for years to put more muscle and money into a heightened asteroid alert.
Earth is menaced all the time by meteors, which are chunks of asteroids or comets that enter Earth’s atmosphere. But many if not most of them are simply too small to detect from afar with the tools now available to astronomers.
The meteor that shattered over the Ural Mountains was estimated to be 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. It blew out thousands of windows and left about 1,200 people injured in Chelyabinsk, a city of 1 million. And yet no one saw it coming; it was about the size of a bus.
“This is a tiny asteroid," said astronomer Paul Chodas, who works in NASA’s Near-Earth Object program in Pasadena, Calif.
“It would be very faint and difficult to detect — not impossible, but difficult."
As for the three-times-longer asteroid that hurtled by Earth later in the day Friday, passing closer to the planet than some communications satellites, astronomers in Spain did not even discover it until a year ago. That would have been too late for pre-emptive action — such as the launch of a deflecting spacecraft — if it had been on a collision course with Earth.
Asteroid 2012 DA14, as it is known, passed harmlessly within 17,150 miles of Earth, zooming by at 17,400 mph, or 5 miles per second.
The scene of the explosion
The scenes from Chelyabinsk offer a glimpse of an apocalyptic scenario that many have walked through mentally, and Hollywood has popularized, but scientists say has never before injured so many people.
Students at the Chelyabinsk Railway Institute gathered around a window, gazing at the fat white contrail that arced its way across the morning sky. A missile? A comet? A few quiet moments passed. And then, with incredible force, the windows blew in.
The students crammed through a staircase thickly blanketed with glass out to the street, where hundreds stood in awe, looking at the sky. The flash came in blinding white, so bright that the vivid shadows of buildings slid swiftly and sickeningly across the ground. It burst yellow, then orange. And then there was the sound of frightened, confused people.
Around 1,200 people, 200 of them children, were injured, mostly by glass that exploded into schools and workplaces, according to Russia’s Interior Ministry. Others suffered skull trauma and broken bones. No deaths were reported. A city administrator in Chelyabinsk said that more than 1 million square feet of glass shattered, leaving many buildings exposed to icy cold.
And as scientists tried to piece together the chain of events that led to Friday’s disaster, residents of Chelyabinsk were left to grapple with memories that seemed to belong in science fiction.
“I opened the window from surprise — there was such heat coming in, as if it were summer in the yard, and then I watched as the flash flew by and turned into a dot somewhere over the forest," wrote Darya Frenn, a blogger. “And in several seconds there was an explosion of such force that the window flew in along with its frame, the monitor fell, and everything that was on the desk."
“God forbid you should ever have to experience anything like this," she wrote.
At 9 a.m., the sun had just risen on the Ural Mountains, which form a ridge between European Russia and the vast stretch of Siberia to the east. The area around Chelyabinsk is a constellation of defense-manufacturing cities, including some devoted to developing and producing nuclear weapons. The factory towns are separated by great expanses of uninhabited forest.
As residents of Chelyabinsk began their day on Friday, a 10-ton meteor around 10 feet in diameter was hurtling toward the Earth at a speed of about 10 to 12 miles per second, experts from the Russian Academy of Sciences reported in a statement released Friday. Scientists believe the meteor exploded upon hitting the lower atmosphere and disintegrated at an altitude of about 20 to 30 miles above the Earth’s surface — not an especially unusual event, the statement said.
This meteor was unusual because its material was so hard — it may have been made of iron, the statement said — which allowed some small fragments, or meteorites, perhaps 5 percent of the meteor’s mass, to reach the Earth’s surface. Nothing similar has been recorded in Russian territory since 2002, the statement said.
Estimates of the meteor’s size varied considerably. Peter Brown, a physics professor and director of the Center for Planetary Science and Exploration at the University of Western Ontario, said it was closer to 50 feet in diameter and probably weighed around 7,000 tons. He said the energy released by the explosion was equivalent to 300 kilotons of TNT.
Meteors typically cause sonic booms when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere, and the one that occurred over Chelyabinsk was forceful enough to shatter dishes and televisions in people’s homes. Car alarms were triggered for miles around, and the roof of a zinc factory partially collapsed. Video clips, uploaded by the hundreds starting early Friday morning, showed ordinary mornings interrupted by a blinding flash and the sound of shattering glass.
Maria Polyakova, 25, head of reception at the Park-City Hotel in Chelyabinsk, said it was the light that caught her eye.
“I saw a flash in the window, turned toward it and saw a burning cloud, which was surrounded by smoke and was going downward — it reminded me of what you see after an explosion," she said. The blast that followed was forceful enough to shatter the heavy automatic glass doors on the hotel’s first floor, as well as many windows on the floor above, she said.
Valentina Nikolayeva, a teacher in Chelyabinsk, described it as “an unreal light" that filled all the classrooms on one side of School No. 15.
“It was a light which never happens in life, it happens probably only in the end of the world," she said in a clip posted on a news portal, Life News.ru.