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Last updated: February 15, 2013 6:39 pm
When a 10-tonne meteorite came crashing towards the grim, industrial region of Chelyabinsk on the edge of the Ural mountains on Friday, politicians, scientists and locals were quick to come up with an explanation.
Regional emergency officials blamed the fireball on an asteroid the size of an Olympic swimming pool that was due to pass close to the earth on Friday.
The city’s leading priest called the blast of light a “warning” from God, while Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the far-right Liberal Democratic party, dismissed the possibility of a meteor entirely. He blamed “a test of new weapons” by American “instigators of war, saboteurs”.
“Meteors? Nothing ever falls anywhere. Space is the universe – it has its own laws,” he told journalists knowingly.
Russia is no stranger to narratives of meteoric apocalypse. A meteorite that crashed into Siberia in 1908 and wreaked damage over 2,000 sq km was believed by some to herald the 1917 Russian Revolution. The same devastating meteorite takes on apocalyptic significance in the Ice Trilogy of Vladimir Sorokin, Russia’s leading contemporary author.
Yet the debris that came hurtling into the earth’s atmosphere at 54,000km an hour on Friday was a different beast, one that caused minor injuries to an estimated 1,000 people, including 150 children, but left Chelyabinsk and the rest of the world in a state of mild shock.
By Friday evening there were still no reported fatalities from the scene. However, the emergency ministry said that more than 100 people had been hospitalised. Many of them had been injured after rushing to the window to catch a glimpse of the meteorite’s fantastic fall, only to have the glass shatter on top of them seconds later.
On Russian television, locals described seeing a trail of white smoke “like jet streams from a plane”, accompanied by a blinding light and followed by a large boom. The scene, which unfolded at 9.20am, was faithfully captured by amateur video on dozens of dashboard and cellphone cameras.
The meteorite was visible up to 200km away in Yekaterinburg, and damage from the disintegrating rock was reported as far south as Kazakhstan. Yet most of the wreckage was confined to Chebarkul, a town of 45,000 about 80km west of Chelyabinsk city.
Shockwaves from the debris were so strong they are believed to have knocked in part of the roof and walls of a local zinc plant and shattered the windows of apartment buildings, schools and hospitals, leaving the interiors exposed to the -18C cold.
Scientists are investigating whether a meteorite indeed hit the earth, or whether what locals saw was in fact meteoric debris, the result perhaps of a meteor exploding when it entered the earth’s atmosphere.
Meteors? Nothing ever falls anywhere. Space is the universe – it has its own laws
- Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of far-right Liberal Democratic party
Local officials said on Friday that 20,000 rescue workers had been sent to the scene, along with 10,000 police, who would work with experts to look for more craters. As of Friday evening, just one two-metre wide crater had been found, while much of the debris was believed to have fallen into a nearby reservoir.
The incident risks creating another public relations disaster for the emergencies ministry, criticised last summer for failing to prepare for a flood in southern Russia that killed scores of people and swept away hundreds of homes. On Friday morning, a regional emergencies service official told reporters the ministry had not sounded the alarm because such a move would only “create massive panic”, but that it had sent locals text messages alerting them to the danger.
A few hours later, the ministry’s Moscow office contradicted the earlier statements, saying officials had had no knowledge of the incoming meteorite and that no text messages had been sent.
Leading western scientists, including the European Space Agency, rejected Russian officials’ claim that the meteorite bore any connection to the asteroid, saying that their consecutive appearances were merely a cosmic coincidence.
Despite the damage, the meteorite – and Chelyabinsk – quickly became a running joke on blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
The industrial city has long tried to shake off its reputation as one of Russia’s dirtiest, even going so far as to put out a $10,000 tender for any IT company that could help it optimise web search results, so that phrases such as “radiation in Chelyabinsk” and “dirtiest city on the planet” appeared further down the list.
On Friday, one internet meme showed two identical pictures of a dismal-looking city, captioned “Chelyabinsk before meteor shower” and “after meteor shower”.
Another cartoon depicted an alien with the caption: “The inhabitants of the meteorite look in horror at the approach of Chelyabinsk.”
CRASH COURSE IN HEAVENLY BODIES
An asteroid or comet landed in western Greenland 3bn years ago to create the biggest and oldest impact crater on earth. The crater was found in 2012.
According to one hypothesis, a meteorite that smashed into the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico created enough debris to block out the sun and eventually kill off the dinosaurs.
The Orgueil meteorite landed in the south of France in 1864. Some pollen seeds attached to the rock caused controversy when scientists thought that it might be carrying proof of extraterrestrial life.
The Willamette meteorite was discovered in Oregon in 1902, although native Americans had already been worshipping it and called it Tomanowos. The tribe can still visit the meteorite at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for ceremonial purposes.
In 1908, an asteroid or comet exploded over Siberia, flattening 800 square miles of trees. It became known as the Tunguska event.
The Hoba meteorite fell to earth about 80,000 years ago and was discovered in 1920 by a farmer in Namibia.
The Sikhote-Alin meteorite ripped apart in an explosion when it fell to earth in 1947, splattering the Sikhote-Alin mountains in Siberia.
In 1954, a sleeping housewife in Alabama was hit by the grapefruit-sized Sylacauga meteorite that smashed through her roof.
ALH 84001 was discovered in 1984 in Antarctica. It came from Mars and contained the fossilised remains of what may have been bacteria – evidence of early Martian life.
The Peekskill meteorite blazed across US skies in 1992 to land on a parked Chevrolet Malibu in Peekskill, New York. The car survived with only a dent.
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