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Andrew Alden

Beware the Meteor Media

By February 15, 2013

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Yesterday a spectacularly large fireball descended from space upon the southern Ural region, in central Russia, and exploded sending meteorite fragments over Chelyabinsk. The whole city suffered shattered windows, which is not trivial in winter weather, and over a thousand people needed medical attention. Emily Lakdawalla has collected a nice set of image/video links, and the infrasound community is all atwitter too.

The authorities cannot be expected to respond correctly when things like this happen—they are only a little less prone to error than the rest of us. It's clear to me that we can learn from some of the good and stupid responses in Russia.

On the good side, we have the authorities. Emergency responders were quick to check radioactivity and report that there was none. Meteorites are not radioactive, but there are satellites up there with plutonium power supplies so it was good that they made sure. Teams with expertise in chemical and biological protection were put on alert. That's useless for meteorites, but a good thing to do in general. The mayor of Chelyabinsk announced, "Do not panic, this is an ordinary situation we can manage in a couple of days."

On the bad side, we have the authorities. A local newspaper ran an item claiming that the military had shot the meteor down with a missile! Someone at the emergency management agency falsely claimed that they had sent a mass SMS warning. Not so, the agency later clarified, and said it would fire the person responsible. [source] Politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky announced, "Those aren't meteors falling, it's the Americans testing new weapons."

Then we have the sensible people. Russia's Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin, made the point that no government in the world has a system in place to do anything about these world-threatening objects. Dmitry, meet the B612 Foundation.

Cosmic impacts
The 1908 Tunguska impact event
Asteroid geology
Meteorite gallery
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February 18, 2013 at 10:10 am
(1) TK_M says:

Watching the footage, I could not help but think of Tunguska. Russia does seem somehow more prone to getting the big ones. I also thought of all the movies and realsied that we still have lots of plans, but nothing actually in place. After all the skyward activity this weekend, it should make us a little more concerned? The horrible irony was that it had only just been finally confirmed that it was a meteorite stike that killed the dinosaurs and many other kinds of life also.

I read about the size of the tsunamis that are likely to occur, even if one of the big ones fell into the oceans, it did not make for pleasant reading.

Watching the videos and hearing multiple sonic bangs as it broke apart, I was concerned that people might be hurt as the pieces landed. That reminded me of something about the V1 and V2 weapons used against Britain during the Second World War. The V2s flew faster than sound, so people learned that if you heard one flying, you had already survived. The poor people who were killed by them would never hear it, as the weapon arrived before the sound of it arriving did.

So although a minute chance, if a substantial one were to hit me, it could happen at any time and I might just get a chance to see a bright flash. That is all I would be likely to know of it Interestingly lots of people seem to have survived being hit by one of the smaller ones. I wonder about the shock waves that would accompany them also.

February 19, 2013 at 12:19 am
(2) Mark Harder says:

My reply to the query about why Russia – specifically Siberia – seems to be targeted by meteorites is that Russia is such a big place, and most of it is Siberia. But I wonder if that’s adequate. The really really big one 65MYa struck what’s now the Yucatan-Gulf coast. All of these are in in the Northern Hemisphere, which is also where most of the Earth’s landmass is found. Still, I also wonder if the direction from which meteors arrive is truly random. Do they more frequently strike the solar system from ‘above’ the plane of the ecliptic, than the other, ‘southerly’ direction?

Another question: I’m alarmed (but not so surprised) that anyone in the media would suggest that a meteor was actually a weapon. Were I in the path of a meteor, I’d immediately wonder if this was Armageddon. With only seconds to minutes of warning, how would the defense forces of the nuclear powers make such a decision? I haven’t seen an answer to that question in the press, and I suppose I never will. Leaves me a little nervous, though.

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