Let’s call today freaky space rock Friday. As Will Englund reports from Russia, a fireball zoomed across the sky near Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains around 9:20 a.m. local time, shattering glass, injuring more than 900 and sending 43 people to the hospital, according to health officials.
Meanwhile, an asteroid known as 2012 DA14 will zoom past Earth this afternoon -- but at a safe distance.
The object that caused the Russian fireball was either a small asteroid or a chunk of a comet. When such space rocks hit the atmosphere, they become known as meteors. Any meteor fragments that reach the ground are then called meteorites.
Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through loose fields of debris from comets and thousands of fragments -- from paint-chip sized flecks up to boulder-sized pieces or bigger -- penetrate the atmosphere, setting off sometimes spectacular sky shows. These showers, such as the Perseids and Leonids, occur at regular times of the year as the Earth swings through these debris fields.
- Brian Vastag
Neither Russia nor the United States currently possesses the technology to prevent a meteor strike, but that doesn't mean we won't have it in the future.
- Shooting paint pellets at the asteroid, which would change its trajectory and coat the service in sun-reflecting white powder.
- Nudging the asteroid with a robot space vehicle to change its path.
- Detonating nuclear bombs on or near an oncoming asteroid to break it into pieces (which would still fall to earth) or reroute its trajectory to steer it past Earth.
- Using beams of concentrated sunlight to melt an icy asteroid, changing its direction.
- Launching a spacecraft from an asteroid, which could push it off-course.
- Flying a spacecraft close to an asteroid, which would exert a gravitational pull.
- Cooling down the asteroid with a number of solar shields.
- Attaching a weighted cord to the asteroid, which would throw off its center of mass and trajectory.
Unfortunately, Tracton writes, most of these ideas would take 10 to 20 years to get in place.
What about shooting missiles at oncoming meteors, the same way missile-defense systems work? The physics of meteor flight don't allow it, a former U.S. Air Force Space Command missile expert told Wired.
In either case, the government is on it. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, announced today that the committee will soon hold a hearing "to examine ways to better identify and address asteroids that pose a potential threat to Earth."
Russia appears to be working on meteor-defense plans as well. In a meeting today, Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov said he would work with the Russian Academy of Sciences to improve space monitoring, according to news site Znak.com.
"I'm awaiting concrete suggestions for space monitoring systems for the portion of outer space surrounding planet earth," he said.
When the sky is falling, grab a piece of it.
Back in 2010, a 2-by-3 inch meteorite crashed through the roof of a doctor's office in Lorton, Va. As far as rocks go, it was a common chondrite meteorite, but the story surrounding it bumped up the rock's value up to $50,000.
The Smithsonian offered the doctors $10,000 for the Lorton Meteorite, and the doctors quickly accepted -- they intended to donate the money to the Haiti earthquake relief efforts.
But within a week of the crash landing, lawyers for the owners of the office building leased by the doctors challenged the doctors' ownership and demanded the meteorite's return. The doctors hired their own lawyers, and then things got interesting.
According to the University of William & Mary, law students working on behalf of the doctors' legal team were asked to research "the law of ownership rights for meteorites in Virginia."
What they found was fascinating:
The students concluded that because the meteorite fell directly out of the sky, it was akin to lost or abandoned property. “In these cases,” they wrote, “the property rights rest with the finder against all but the ‘true owner.’ Because a meteorite, unlike a dropped piece of jewelry or wallet, has no ‘true owner,’ rights rest with the finder, or in this case the tenant.”
"Their work was presumably persuasive," notes the university. The landlords eventually dropped their claims, the Smithsonian added the Lorton Meteorite to its permanent collection, and the doctors donated their fees to Doctors without Borders.
But what happens if a meteor falls in a public place? According to the Bureau of Land Management's rules on "rockhounding", the agency charged with managing federal lands, people can collect meteorites from public lands. They just have to do it casually -- and they can't sell what they've collected.
Casual collection of meteorites from public lands is only for an individual's personal use. Sale or barter is considered commercial use. A permit must be issued for commercial activities and fees will be collected, including a purchase price based on a unit price or the percentage of fair market value, and a reclamation fee, if required.
Discovery investigated the issue after the Lorton incident. Their story offers more detail about the messy questions of meteorite ownership around the world.
Russian Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov held a meeting with top department officials on Friday to discuss the official response to the damage a meteor caused in Chelyabinsk and the surrounding region.
According to a transcript of the meeting published on Russian news site Znak.com and translated by the Post's Olga Khazan, a state of emergency has been declared in Chelyabinsk and two nearby municipalities.
In Chelyabinsk, the shock wave from the meteor damaged 297 buildings, including 12 hospitals and schools, a ministry official said -- though local officials have reported much more significant damages. Their latest count includes 3,000 damaged buildings and 1 million square feet of broken glass.
The Russian government has deployed 20,000 people and 4,000 machines to deal with the situation, according to the transcript. The minister is also encouraging local governments and business owners to double-check the integrity of important community resources like energy facilities and nursing homes.
While there have been no fatalities, the ministers did discuss two people who were seriously injured: a 51-year-old woman and a 27-year-old man. One or both of them could be transported to Moscow for special treatment, if necessary.
Asked about the likelihood of more meteors, Dmitry Batyukov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said another strike is "practically impossible."
From reporter Will Englund:
"Russian Geographic Society regional branch chairman, Sergei Zakharov, told the Interfax news agency that there were three explosions as the meteor came apart.
"Judging by my observations, the fireball was flying from southeast to northwest. A bright flare of more than 2,500 degrees (Centigrade) happened before the three explosions. The first explosion was the strongest," he said.
According to his calculations, he said, it took place about 60-70 kilometers (37-43 miles) above the ground and had the approximate force of one to ten kilotons.
Other measurements, though, placed the altitude of the explosion at about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles), he said, which would put its force at 0.1 to one kiloton."
In case you're a few years removed from your last astronomy class, Bill Nye "the Science Guy" appeared on CNN to break down the science behind the Russian meteor in easy, elementary-school English.
As Nye explains, space matter begins breaking up and burning as soon as it hits the earth's atmosphere; that impact also causes a wave of pressure that can knock out windows and cause other damage on the ground.
— RT (@RT_com) February 15, 2013
Russian state-funded TV network RT reports that 1,200 people suffered injuries, according to a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. Just a few hours ago, it was reported that 900 were injured. No deaths have been reported.
Doctors at one clinic told a local news Web site, 74.ru, that most of the injuries were either cuts from flying glass or concussions.
The meteor that crashed into Russia "was the largest recorded object to strike the Earth in more than a century," Nature reports. It released more energy than the nuclear weapon tested by North Korea a few days ago.
That raises another interesting point -- most of the thousands of damaged apartments and buildings were hit by shock waves from the explosion of the rock breaking up in the atmosphere, not the actual fragments, or meteorites, hitting the ground.
[Margaret Campbell-Brown, an astronomer at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada] says that the infrasound data shows a very shallow angle of approach — a feature that funnelled much of the energy from the blast to the city below. Still, she adds, "It's lucky that there wasn't more damage."
Zinc prices rose on the London Stock Exchange today after reports that the shock wave from this morning's meteorite damaged a zinc factory in Chelyabinsk, Bloomberg reports.
According to a recent news release, Chelyabinsk Zinc, a unit of the massive Ural Mining & Metallurgical Co., produced 160,000 metric tons of refined zinc and alloys last year.
The meteor reportedly destroyed the roof of the Chelyabinsk factory. Photos of the building's exterior show a collapsed wall, dangling wires and municipal workers repairing power lines outside. It's not yet clear what other economic damage the meteor might cause.
An amateur video that was reposted by Now This News includes stunning images and sounds of the meteor as it zooms across the Russian sky.
While it's plausible that this is the sound it actually made, a scientist with the Capital Weather gang is skeptical.
When meteors do make noise, it's because of shock waves in front of the meteor. NASA explains:
A sonic boom is sometimes heard for very bright Leonid meteors, called fireballs, that appear near your own observing site high in the sky. If the particle is larger than the mean free path of the air molecules, a high Mach number shock wave forms in front of the meteoroid. Very rarely, this shock wave penetrates deep enough in the atmosphere that it can be heard. It sounds like the sonic boom of an airplane, but as a distant rumble.
Chelyabinsk, the central Russian city of 1.1 million where residents today watched a meteor sail across the sky and explode spectacularly, has a history of strange disaster. Time's Bryan Walsh reported a few years ago on the legacy of secret Soviet nuclear programs and the effect it's had on the town's environment and psyche:
Chelyabinsk isn't far from the massive Mayak nuclear complex, which processed materials for the first Soviet atomic weapons. During the 1940s and '50s, Mayak pumped nuclear waste directly into the rivers that ran through villages in the area, exposing hundreds of thousands to dangerous levels of radiation. Though dumping has been since halted, many of the region's waterways remain at least faintly radioactive, and residents still suffer from elevated cancer rates.
[Anti-nuclear activists Natalya] Mironova and [Gosman] Kabriov record radioactivity as ornithologists note the comings and goings of birds. On a tour of some of the remaining hotspots near local towns and villages, they dip their buzzing Geiger counters into one still-contaminated river where we'd later see kids wading ankle-deep.
You have to wonder how that legacy – a hostile environment, government secrecy, unexplained phenomena – might be coloring Chelyabinsk's mood today.
The Guardian has published a fascinating map of "every meteorite fall on earth ... or at least those we know about." The data comes from the U.S. Meteorological Society, and some of it dates back thousands of years.
View the full, interactive map on The Guardian's site.
Russia's meteor strike was "the Lord’s message to humanity," according to a senior clergy member in Yekaterinburg, a city 200 miles north of the site of the Chelyabinsk meteor, according to Russian news site RIA Novosti.
“From the Scriptures, we know that the Lord often sends people signs and warnings via natural forces,” Metropolitan of Chelyabinsk and Zlatoust Feofan said in a statement released on Friday.
"I think that not only for the Ural [regions] residents, but for the whole of humanity, the meteorite is a reminder that we live in fragile and unpredictable world,” the clergyman said.
My colleague Max Fisher has reported on Russia's social media community, which is already coming up with conspiracy theories about the meteor ranging from an alien invasion to the start of the apocalypse.
Religious figures all over the world frequently try to cast meaning on natural disasters, usually in order to console victims, but this seems like an oddly fringe-sounding, supernatural statement coming from a church leader.
Russia has gotten exponentially more religious over the past few decades, though, so perhaps it's not surprising.
Some Russians seem unconvinced that this morning's explosion over the Ural Mountains was a mere astrological phenomenon.
A poll on the Web site for the Ridus news agency shows that 51 percent of Russian respondents believe today's meteor is the start of an alien invasion, the Post's Max Fisher writes.
And perhaps more incredibly, Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- a high-profile member of the Russian Duma -- told the Voice of Russia that "those were not meteorites, it was Americans testing their new weapons."
Scientists have, of course, ruled that the observed fireball was a meteor exploding above the town of Chelyabinsk.
Meteors as large as the estimated 10-foot space rock that blew up over Russia today streak into the Earth’s atmosphere every “50 years or so,” said asteroid researcher K.T. Ramesh of the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering.
“It’s probably one of the bigger ones since Tunguska,” said Ramesh, referring to the 1908 event that flattened some 800 square miles of forest in Siberia. (Russia seems to be unlucky when it comes to getting hit with space debris.)
An article in the journal Nature has confirmed that this meteor is, in fact, the biggest since Tunguska.
Given the available information, Ramesh thinks the Russian fireball was caused by a stony asteroid - the most common type - because it appeared to explode or break up. "This makes it look more like a relatively porous rock rather than a solid rock. But I need real data on the pressure waves it created to be positive."
Many of the amateur videos of this morning's Russian meteor were captured, oddly, on dashboard cameras -- a device we don't often see in the U.S.
As the Post's Olga Khazan reports, the cams are actually very common in Russia, largely because Russian drivers suffer so many accidents. Read her full explainer here.
Meteor strikes are pretty common, actually -- experts say small strikes happen five to 10 times every year. But large meteors like the one that exploded over Russia today are far less common, striking roughly once every five years.
Most of these strikes do not cause human injury, reports the AP.
The last comparable strike was in 2008, when a meteor exploded over Sudan. The largest known strike in modern times was the Tunguska event of June 1908, which leveled more than 830 square miles of trees in Siberia, according to The Guardian.
Years later, an account in the Observer recalled that "the luminous silvery vapour, formed at the height of some fifty miles as the meteorite struck the earth's atmosphere, illuminated a great part of Russia ... Many Russians, believing this to be a sign of the approaching end of the world, left their homes and belongings, and wandered off to holy shrines and monasteries."
Both NASA and the European Space Agency have confirmed that the much-hyped near-miss asteroid is not related to the meteor falling over Russia.
— ESA (@esa) February 15, 2013
Scientists say Russian meteorite unrelated to asteroid 2012 DA14: on very different paths. DA14 misses us today. go.nasa.gov/Y5Zsoe
— NASA (@NASA) February 15, 2013
The asteroid is still expected to pass by earth this afternoon -- so close, in fact, that it will fall within the geosynchronous ring of weather and communications satellites.
And in case you're wondering about the difference between a meteor and an asteroid, NASA defines asteroids as "minor planets, small rocky bodies" and meteors as "pieces of solar system debris that have fallen to Earth from space." They're made of rock or metal.
According to Capital Weather Gang, this meteor was much larger than the typical 1 millimeter size of meteors that enter the atmosphere. Consider this description from the Russian Academy of Sciences (via the Radio Free Europe live blog):
The object was “a few meters” [approximately 10 feet] across, but weighed around 10 tons and had a total energy of “a few kilotons.” It entered the atmosphere at a speed of 15-20 km/second [roughly 30-45 thousand miles per hour] and broke up an altitude of 30-50 kilometers [18 to30 miles] .
A Russian health official says nearly 1,000 people are injured and 43 hospitalized in the aftermath of the meteor that broke up over Chelyabinsk today, according to AP. So far, no deaths have been reported.
The real risk to Russians now, however, is the cold. It's 23 degrees Fahrenheit in the Ural Mountains today, and the meteor blew out "countless" windows in homes, offices and schools. That not only puts people at risk of exposure, but could also freeze heating systems.
In a statement published by Radio Free Europe, Russian President Vladiminir Putin said businesses were encouraged to send employees home so they could "take measures to preserve the heat."
"That was a priority task because the temperature was minus 5 Celsius during the day and a further drop in temperature was expected during the night," the statement said.
The meteor that broke up in the sky over Chelyabinsk this morning was seen as far north as Nizhny Tagil and as far south as Kazakhstan. It also dropped fragments in the town of Chebarkul, about 50 miles away, and more will likely surface throughout the day. View a live map of the debris here.
Chelyabinsk is a city of more than one million in the Ural Mountains near the Kazakhstan border.
The disaster in Algeria this week began when militants seized a remote, multinational gas complex in the desert and ended when the Algerian military staged a guns-blazing "rescue" attempt. Dozens of hostages were killed. But Algeria's underlying crisis of militancy and extremism, much like the national security concerns it is prompting in the United States, has been going on for years. It's that larger crisis that really matters, and the unanswered questions about its nature and threat to the United States often boil down to one very complicated question: What is the role of al-Qaeda?
The link between the international terrorist organization and the gas complex hostage-takers appears, based on current information, sketchy. The suspected mastermind behind the attack is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former officer with an al-Qaeda affiliate based mostly in Algeria called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. Maghreb is Arabic for "the West," a name with its origins in the Umayyad Caliphate's seventh-century conquest of northwest Africa. Whatever AQIM's connection to the Algeria attack, the incident has raised its profile in the larger jihadist community dramatically, The Post's Joby Warrick reports. It's also raised concern in the United States about the group's capabilities and intentions.
AQIM's current links to the "central" al-Qaeda organization, the one based in Pakistan and better known to Americans for former leader Osama bin Laden, are unclear. So is its commitment to pursuing al-Qaeda's professed "global" mission; AQIM has in the past appeared, much like the Taliban in its takeover of Afghanistan, to focus its efforts locally, and has often favored lucrative criminal enterprises over spectacular terrorist attacks.
There is one important source of information on the link between AQIM and the senior leaders in far-away Afghanistan and Pakistan. When U.S. Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011, they found a cache of documents that are sometimes called "the Abbottabad papers." Terrorism analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, in an article, goes through what these papers said about AQIM.
Bin Laden, according to Gartenstein-Ross's reading of the tiny fraction of the Abbottabad papers that have been made public, personally maintained communication with AQIM's leaders right into 2011. In his letters to far-away North Africa, bin Laden offered advice (or commands; it's not clear which) to the group's leaders.
Some suggestions were small or general -- “planting trees helps al mujahedin [fighters] and gives them cover” from satellites and drones -- but others are quite specific. In spring of 2010, bin Laden asked AQIM to shelter a jihadist named Younis al-Mauritani and to provide him with 200,000 euros. A few months later, Western intelligence agencies discovered a terrorism plot to launch major, simultaneous attacks in several European cities. They named Mauritani as the suspected organizer. He was arrested in Pakistan a year later.
In April 2011, as the Western military intervention in Libya accelerated, bin Laden offered AQIM a point-by-point plan for how the group should handle some French hostages it had taken. He was worried that killing them would inflame Arab public opinion, at that moment grateful for France's intervention, against al-Qaeda. The AQIM leadership largely followed his advice.
Gartenstein-Ross is careful not to draw big conclusions about the links between AQIM and al-Qaeda's far-away leadership, either before or after bin Laden's death. He quotes another terrorism analyst, Leah Farrall, in pointing to al-Qaeda's "devolved network hierarchy," in which the command structure was vague and personality politics often shaped the organization. (I've had the privilege of editing Gartstein-Ross and Farrall, both of whom taught me a great deal about the wide gulf between how al-Qaeda is perceived and how it actually functions.)
Still, AQIM's history clearly sets it apart from other branches or offshoots of al-Qaeda, such as Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which have more eagerly pursued bin Laden's global terrorist mission. The movement behind AQIM followed a long ideological journey to 2006, when it took on the al-Qaeda name. The Islamist militant groups of Algeria began as partisans in the country's 1990s civil war -- ironically, as champions of the democratically elected Islamic Salvation Front, a political party, and opponents of the military, which had canceled the election in a coup and rounded up party officials.
But the militants have since changed in three important ways. First, they gradually picked up criminal enterprises, such as the smuggling and ransom-taking for which Belmokhtar, the suspected mastermind of the recent hostage crisis, had earned the nickname "Marlboro Man." Second, they pushed into parts of the somewhat-lawless Sahel region, a lightly populated geographic region that includes, among a few other countries, southern Algeria, where the gas complex is, and northern Mali, where Islamist extremists have seized control in a rebellion.
The third change still has many analysts guessing, including about the hostage crisis. In 2006, one of the militant groups, running low on recruits and struggling to find a way forward, officially joined with al-Qaeda. The Algeria-based band of about 1,000 men had previously fought under a name that would probably make most Americans chuckle rather than cower: the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. In 2004, they initiated lengthy, high-level negotiations with the al-Qaeda leadership, which was bunkered in Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan. After two years, they became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
What exactly that name change means -- what it means for Algeria, for the region, for the group's potential threat to the United States -- is difficult to know.
Belmokhtar is no longer a member of AQIM, which he left to start his own group. Some analysts believe he fell out with other leaders, though others suspect the split may have been planned. AQIM announced in October that he had been "suspended," though there are signs that the two may still be cooperating closely. It's worth noting that his new group is named after rebel group from Algeria's civil war, a throwback to an era when Islamists there focused more locally than they do now. The decision to seize the gas complex and its staff, assuming it was really Belmokhtar's, may have been for ideological causes, for money, for better standing among fellow Islamists, or some combination of the three. But it was a reminder that, even if the attack had nothing to do with AQIM, the region is deeply susceptible.
Just a few days before the hostage crisis in Algeria, militants fighting under the AQIM banner seized several towns in neighboring Mali, where the group has joined a rebellion so successful that France is sending more than 2,000 troops to halt their progress. Civilians who have escaped from northern Mali describe the rebels' beatings, amputations, executions, use of child soldiers and extreme restrictions on women.
The extremists have even destroyed some of Mali's ancient cultural sites. So far, their record in Mali makes them sound less like al-Qaeda than like its once-close ally, the Taliban. But that is just their record so far. As to their ambition for the future, only time can tell.