From Russia with Iron: What We’ve Learned From the Asteroid Wake-Up Call A Year Ago

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While the Winter Olympics in Russia are among the top trending topics online today, it was exactly a year ago this week when what fell from the sky in Russia was making a bigger splash on the social networks.

On Feb. 15, 2013, an asteroid as wide as the length of two school buses exploded in our planet’s atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, Russia, injuring about 1,600 people and causing millions of dollars of damage.

The 20-meter-wide (65-foot-wide) asteroid screeched across the pale blue Russian sky at about 0.15 kilometers per second (69, 000km/h or about 42, 900 mph) creating a sonic air burst which released the equivalent to approximately 500 kilotons of TNT. That’s over twenty-times more energy than was released from the atomic bomb detonated at Hiroshima.

The air burst exploded windows across the city, which was the main cause of injury, from the shards of flying broken glass. However, about two-dozen people reported burned skin from the ultraviolet light emitted by the asteroid’s entry into our atmosphere.

Experts agree that it’s a miracle no one was killed, as the asteroid, weighing more than France’s Eiffel Tower, crashed through the ice of a frozen and deserted lake near the Russian city.

A year later, scientists have learned more about our planet, and the wild and free universe above, from that 13,000 metric tonne rock.

Most asteroids and other space rocks fall into the ocean – which makes up two-thirds of our planet – or at the poles, so they strike where few to no one is there to greet them.

This asteroid was one of only 18 such impacts that have hit near human populations, appearing within minutes online in the form of YouTube videos, and still photos on all the social networks. This created a tickle-trunk of amazingly easy information to gather for researchers.

For starters, scientists have been able to use backwards calculations of its trajectory, to figure out exactly where it came from.

It looks like the bit of rock that shook Russia a year ago was part of a massive two-kilometre geocruiser which astronomers call 86039. Discovered in 1999, 86039 is on an orbit which regularly intersects our own in the universe, making it an NEO or Near Earth Object.

NEOs are the ones which astronomers watch all the closer, as their nearness to our planet makes them even more likely to collide with it, or as in the case of the Russian asteroid, fling pieces of rock towards us at supersonic speeds.

So far, astronomers have catalogued about 10, 600 NEOs, but the number of space rocks near our planet may actually be in the millions, all screaming across the darkness of space from the very beginning of time and space itself.

Speaking of the very beginning, that rock which fell over Russia may have witnessed the very beginning.

Scientists calculate the age of the Russian asteroid at about 4.5 billion years old – roughly the same age as our solar system. That means it is composed of the same stuff in our universe, and ultimately ourselves, as we formed from the primordial matter, which initially erupted out of the Big Bang.

Last June, Scientists used magnetic imaging in Lake Cherbarkul, and had identified a 60cm (2-foot) sized meteorite in the mud at the bottom of the lake. Over several weeks, the small but dense space rock was raised on October 16, 2013, with a total mass of 654 kg (1,442 lb). It was the largest fragment of the asteroid found so far, and it initially broke the scales used to weigh it.

From this chunk, scientists were able to conclude the asteroid was about 10 percent iron.

The most important discovery was that these sorts of collisions are no longer just hypothetical.

Because of the huge impact of the videos on YouTube and the other social networks, and the amount of monetary damage it caused in a heavily populated area, world leaders took action on what astronomers and scientists have been begging and pleading for for years: for more money to research and develop ways prevent NEOs from harming us.

Within weeks of the Russian asteroid last year, the Russian and United States militaries began working together to find and defend our planet from dangerous NEOs and the American government doubled NASA’s asteroid-hunting budget to $40 million.

The American government’s National Aeronautic Space Administration (NASA) started a contest last June, called the “Grand Challenge” that solicits ideas from businesses, academics and everyone else, on how to save our planet from potentially hazardous asteroids and other NEOs.

Because even if we clean up our act environmentally, we’re still at risk from unseen space rocks which may one day do what they did to the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago, ending life as we know it on Earth.

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