ETSU astrophysicist: Meteor that hit in Russia a rare event, not a big concern

Becky Campbell • Feb 16, 2013 at 7:28 AM

The 10-ton meteor that slammed into a Russian mountainside Friday morning could happen again in a populated area, but given the land mass occupied by people, it’s unlikely, according to a local astrophysicist.

“Unpredictable but rare and unlikely to be concerned about,” said Dr. Richard Ignace, an associate professor in physics and astronomy at East Tennessee State University.

He likened the event to something that would lead a person to purchase insurance.

“It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it can happen to you,” he said.

Ignace said people never know about most meteor collisions with the Earth’s surface.

“Stuff is pelting the Earth every day. If you just sit outside for about an hour at night, you’re likely to see a shooting star,” he said.

“The earth is 75 percent covered in ocean, so a lot of it hits the ocean. Of the land mass, people are concentrated in the cities and mountains and desert take up most land space,” he said.

That means most spacial debris that hits the Earth is never noticed.

But Friday, there were two “significant” events involving the solar system. First was the meteor — akin to an atomic bomb, officials said —that hit Russia and then a huge asteroid passed within 17,150 miles of Earth.

Ignace said the meteor was about the size of a large vehicle, while the asteroid was much larger, about 150 feet across.

The relatively small meteor entered the Earth’s atmosphere undetected.

“It was very much a surprise,” Ignace said. “Even though10 tons sounds like a lot, it’s only the size of a large vehicle. That’s pretty hard to see with telescopes.”

Residents near the Ural Mountains of Russia saw the bright streak the meteor left behind and heard a loud boom. Many people ran to their window or outside to see what had happened.

Around 1,100 people were injured when the sonic blast shattered windows in an area of more than 1 million square feet.

Ignace said that is about the size of nine football fields.

The meteor traveled around 33,000 mph — or 10 miles per second — he said.

“To give that a little perspective, the earth’s escape is about seven miles per second,” meaning an object has to travel that fast to break gravity and leave the earth’s atmosphere.

“There are some statistics for these kinds of things. It’s a once-in-a-decade event so in 10 years it’s likely to happen again, but not likely in a populated area,” Ignace said. “It could be a century before it happens in a populated area again.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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