Do you remember the great Chelyabinsk meteor explosion? If you don’t live in Russia, chances are you saw it on the Web or on social media, but it was quite a big deal at the time. Three years ago today, on February 15, 2013, a chunk of space rock 65 feet across and weighing 13,000 tons entered the atmosphere and fell towards Earth above the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia. Then it blew up. The flash of the explosion was so bright that even on a sunny winter morning–it was about 9:20 AM when the event occurred–it blazed brighter than the sun for a few seconds. A few minutes later, due to the differential speed of light and sound waves, the sound of the explosion reached the ground. It was so loud and violent that it blew out windows and triggered car alarms everywhere. Hundreds of people were wounded, most by flying glass from shattered windows. The event left an impressive double-streak of gray-white smoke in the air and an incredible array of spectacular video footage, which began hitting YouTube before the smoke had even cleared. I remember seeing one of these videos–most likely the one at the top of this article, which is among the most famous–and being amazed at the intensity of the shock wave.
This was the largest “bolide” collision with the Earth since the Tunguska event of June 1908, which also happened in Russia. Interestingly, astronomers were surprised by this collision, which was not predicted largely because Earth stations don’t keep track of spaceborne objects as comparatively small as this one was. That’s scary when you consider what kind of catastrophic damage the meteor might have done if it reached the ground and came down in a densely-populated area. Coincidentally, on the same day, February 13, 2013, astronomers were tracking another large space object, called 367943 Duende, that was making a close pass to Earth that same day. This meteor, which missed the Earth, was not related to the one that blew up over Chelyabinsk.
In commemoration of the event, I decided to find some of the better footage of the Chelyabinsk meteor on YouTube, which is full of hundreds of such videos. Keep in mind that it seems like there are two separate events–the fireball descending, and then the loud shockwave–but in fact they’re the same phenomenon.
Part of the reason why the Chelyabinsk meteor is so well-documented on video is the widespread use in Russia of car dashboard cameras. Why does everybody in Russia seem to have a dash cam? It’s because no one trusts their police, and insurance scams are very prevalent, so people record their car usage all the time in case they get into an accident and a record of it is needed. This is why so many of the clips of the meteor were taken in cars.
The music and editing of this compilation video is pretty dramatic and overwrought, but it does contain some spectacular views of the meteor fall.
The 2013 event is yet another example of how crowded our solar system really is. Meteor collisions with Earth are actually quite common, but few of them approach the Chelyabinsk event in size or dramatic impact. As the largest country in land area, chances are better that such an event, if it happens over land, will happen in Russia as opposed to somewhere else. As technology increases our ability to document everything that happens on Earth, it’s only a matter of time before the next celestial impact yields pictures as dramatic, or more so, than these are.