📸 The dissipating contrail left over from the Chelyabinsk meteor. (Source: Alex Alishevskikh)
Ten years ago today, a flash of light streaked across the sky over Western Russia. For a brief moment, this rogue object hung in the sky, as bright as a second sun and powerful enough to cause temporary blindness and burns. This was only the start of the Chelyabinsk meteorite event. It quickly exploded midair and a few minutes later the shockwave from the meteor’s breakup hit the city Chelyabinsk, injuring thousands in sprays of shattered glass and damaged buildings, one of the most destructive and best observed impacts in human history.
Today is the ten year anniversary of the Chelyabinsk meteor’s fall to Earth, the largest meteor to enter our atmosphere in 100 years, second only to the hypothesized Tunguska impact in 1908. That crater also formed in Russia and destroyed hundreds of square miles of forest. However, as it occurred in a remote part of Siberia with few witnesses, its exact cause remains mysterious. Chelyabinsk, on the other hand, is truly a meteor of the digital age. In fact, the first international reporting on the event did not come from a major news site, but a Russian hockey fan blog, who broke the story with footage from Twitter hours before any other English coverage. The streak it left across the sky was captured on dozens of CCTV videos and pieces of dashcam footage, which quickly popped up online and were spread across the internet. Today, ten years on from Chelyabinsk, you can still relive what it was like to witness the impact firsthand.
📸 The apex of Chelyabinsk's fireball, caught on dashcam.
Chelyabinsk was a massive meteor, stretching across a diameter of 66-feet. In the low winter light of an early morning, its fireball looked apocalyptic as it cut through the sky. For all the destruction, it wasn’t long before witnesses to the event began searching for pieces across the meteor’s massive strewn field. Chelyabinsk was a boom for the meteorite market, its massive size and large strewn field allowed many pieces of this unique meteor to circulate across the world. Collectors rushed out as soon as they'd realized what happened, gathering chunks of space rock from melted holes in the snow and storing the hot stones in their ovens.
The Chelyabinsk meteor is referred to as a bolide, a term for objects which appear like fireballs during entry. The light seen over Chelyabinsk peaked with a magnitude of -27.3, 30 times brighter than the Sun itself. Anyone awake in the early morning would have immediately seen the shift in light, with shadows cast from extreme angles that moved with the arc of the meteor. With its massive diameter, Chelyabinsk is estimated to have weighed over 13,000 tons. At its fastest, it was moving at over 40,000 miles per hour, almost 60 times the speed of sound.
📸 A hole left in Lake Chebarkul from the impact. (Source: sergei Ilnitsky)
It was after the meteor hit its brightest point that it shattered in a powerful explosion that sent a shockwave of force from the sky. Pieces of the object were flung west of Chelyabinsk, with many meteorites leaving holes in the morning’s snowbanks. Several fragments would eventually be found in Lake Chebarkul, with one weighing up to 1,442 pounds. The impact left a large hole in the lake’s ice which quickly became a pilgrimage site for scientists and meteor hunters who flocked to Chelyabinsk.
The shock waves from the explosion damaged over 7000 regional buildings and sent over 1000 people to the hospital, mostly suffering from lacerations from flying glass. The event was so powerful it created a dust belt in the stratosphere that circled the entire planet and lingered for months. While the event had no reported deaths, it raised some fears over unpreparedness for subsequent meteorites that could menace Earth in the future.
📸 Damage left over from the impact. (Source: Sky News)
The space around the planet is filled with objects whose orbits cross with Earth, so many in fact, that it is impossible to track them all. Many of these burn up into nothing in the atmosphere, but obviously not all of them. The Chelyabinsk meteor went undetected until its entry, its impact as much a surprise to scientists as the witnesses on the ground. Before this incident, it was thought that such large strikes were a once-in-centuries event. Now, some think it may be a once-in-decades event.
The Chelyabinsk meteorite's geologic makeup classifies it as a chondrite — a stony meteorite full of round mineral grains. These meteorites are made up of iron oxides and silicates that originated from a larger body in the asteroid belt. The dark black outer layer of the meteorite is a relatively new addition though; it was created during the entry to Earth's atmosphere. This outer coating is what's known as a fusion crust. When the Chelyabinsk meteorite rocketed to the ground, the high speed and air friction caused its exterior to rapidly heat up. A thin layer of material melted and quickly cooled, turning into a dark and glassy coating.
Most meteors that fall to Earth are perfectly harmless, small fragments that burn up in the atmosphere with no one the wiser. With the Chelyabinsk meteor, one is reminded of the destructive force these space rocks can pack. Because of its size and its many witnesses, Chelyabinsk's impact has stretched long past that day in 2013, when a line of fire cut across the sky and a shockwave tore through a city.
While the odds are you weren’t there to witness the Chelyabinsk impact, you can still see footage online and relive what the experience was like. You can even purchase pieces of the meteorite online to get a first hand look at the incredible outer space visitor!
Fortunately, the Chelyabinsk meteorite exploded in midair, lessening the potential damage of the impact. If you’re wondering what it may have been like had the meteorite failed to airburst or if it had been even larger, then check out this detailed simulator of meteorite impacts created by Neal Agarwal!
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