Meteorite Explodes over Russia and a Near Earth Asteroid Expected to Fly by the Planet, February 15, 2012

February 15th, 2013

Today is a remarkable day for astronomical events.  Earlier today a meteorite streaked across the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia causing explosions that damaged buildings and injured approximately 500 people.  According to NASA , the meteorite, which was too small to detect far in advance, was flying by on a north to south trajectory when it entered the atmosphere.  Even though this event alone is newsworthy, NASA scientists predict that a small asteroid, called 2012 DA14, will pasAsteroids by the Earth today, though this object will be flying in the opposite direction, on a south to north trajectory. The asteroid is approximately 50 meters wide or about half the length of a football field. The near earth asteroid will be true to its name, passing about 17,150 miles above the planet’s surface which seems like a great distance but will actually be closer to the Earth than some of the man-made satellites. This flyby is quite an event since astronomers have never seen this large of an object come as close to the Earth since regular sky surveys began in the 1990s.

It is interesting that the meteorite event and the asteroid flyby will occur not even two months after the infamous date of December 21, 2012 which is the day that, according to interpretations of the Mayan prophecy, an apocalyptic event like an asteroid impact would cause the end of the world. Fortunately, the meteorite’s impact was localized and the asteroid, which is much larger in size, will not come close enough to be a threat to the planet in any way. NASA estimates however that if an asteroid that is the size of 2012 DA14 hit the Earth it could cause a local disaster or cause tidal waves that would flood low-lying coastal areas if it hit the ocean. Though this will not occur today, these impact events are expected to occur every 100 years or so. In fact, in 1908 an asteroid measuring 100 meters exploded in the atmosphere above a remote region called Tunguska in Siberia. It did not hit ground but the explosion was so large that it leveled more than half a million acres of forest.

While the likelihood of a large asteroid hitting the Earth and causing major damage is very low, NASA continues to monitor for any near Earth asteroids since the consequences of a collision could be devastating for a region. As of today, the Near Earth Object Program has classified 1,381 asteroids as potentially hazardous.  And after an eventful day like today, we all might want to watch the skies a little closer from now on.

 


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