The Chelyabinsk Meteor: Separating Fact From Fiction
Almost as soon as footage of this extraordinary event hit the internet, so too did the conspiracy theories...
"This has all the earmarks of a false flag event." "It wasn't a meteor at all, it was a secret weapons test." "I think it was a top secret satellite crashing back to earth." "The meteor was 10 times lower than what we've been told, that town should have been vaporized!"
Everyone please take a deep breath and calm down. This was an unprecedented event to be sure, but nothing more or less than a meteor strike, albeit a rather large one.
Just the Facts, Please
NASA, NORAD and the Russian Federal Space Agency have all verified the facts and figures of this meteor: it was approximately 56 feet in diameter and weighed around 10,000 tons--likely a nickle-iron meteorite with an extremely high density. This meteor and it’s effects–by the numbers–makes perfect scientific sense. The physical effects of a 500 kiloton blast at 90,000 feet would look and feel exactly as it did. It seemed lower than it was in the video because it was so intensely burning. The size of the pocket of superheated, ionized gas around the shock boundary was many times larger than the object itself. The human eye simply wouldn’t be able to detect an object 56′ in diameter (stationary or moving) at 90,000 feet, but something burning up at potentially Mach 57 (44,000 mph) is quite another story. Even if the actual entry speed turned out to be half that speed, it's still devastatingly fast.
Why Didn't a Blast 30x Larger Than Hiroshima Vaporize Everything?
Take a look at footage from “Operation Grapple X” where the UK detonated a series of hydrogen bombs over Christmas Island in the late 1950′s. Grapple X mk2 was 1.8 megatons detonated at only 8,000 feet (asl) over land and within 20 miles of 1,200 troops standing out in the open. They were hit with a shock wave that knocked a few people off their feet accompanied by an earth shattering bang (as you can see and hear in the footage). There was naturally some damage to structures on the island directly beneath the blast, but nothing was leveled or vaporized, and we’re talking about a blast 3 times larger and 8x lower in altitude than this meteor was. Keep in mind that this meteor was also traveling at an extraordinary speed, so the shock wave is actually conical as it’s impacting the ground. Even the initial largest blast wave would still be affected by the forward momentum of the object. The Tunguska shock wave was later found to have impacted the ground in the shape of a butterfly due to it’s angle of trajectory.
An animation of the meteor's trajectory and breakup has been produced, courtesy of Analytical Graphics, and it recently came to light that Meteosat-9 also managed to capture the atmospheric explosion from space. A joint venture of the European Space Agency and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites Meteosat-9 was launched in 2005 to keep watch on Earth's weather from space. The satellite also took video of the fireball.
Image by Stefan Greens | ogleearth.com
Stefan Greens over at ogleearth.com put together a fantastic reconstruction of the path of the meteor using Google Earth, YouTube and high-school math. He even used light shadows from the streetlamp poles in Revolution Square to back-trace the trajectory. I highly recommend checking out the article.
Could it Have Been a Satellite?
There is absolutely no way this was a satellite or man-made object because of two very important factors:
1) Mass. The largest satellite in orbit (aside from the Hubble) is the NRO’s L-32 spysat which tips the scales at 5,200 kg or 5.5 tons (estimated). Even the International Space Station (440 tons) doesn't come anywhere close to matching the sheer density of this meteor. Besides, if something we put in orbit was going to catastrophically deorbit above Russia, I'm pretty certain everyone would be warned ahead of time. Mistakes like that start world wars. Interestingly, there seems to be some discrepancy over the actual weight of this bolide. Russian scientists say the meteor weighed about 10 tons before it entered the Earth's atmosphere, and broke apart 30–50 km (20–30 miles) above ground level. NASA estimated the diameter of the bolide at about 17 meters and its mass at about 10,000 tons. Since NASA likely had input from other sources--namely NORAD--I'll stick with their estimation for the time being, but it's still open to debate as far as I'm concerned. Looking at the relative visual sizes of these objects it wouldn't seem like you could cram the entire density of a warship into an object exponentially smaller, but it's entirely possible when you're talking about an iron-nickel meteor. Have you ever picked up a baseball-sized meteor and held it in your hand? I have, and it was deceivingly, freakishly heavy.
2) Velocity. A satellite re-entering the atmosphere would do so from orbital velocity which is about one-quarter of the speed at which this meteor was traveling, nor would there be a massive explosion and concussive shock wave like this. That blast was from the sheer density of the object. It may have only been 56 feet in diameter, but it weighed more than a Ticonderoga class missile cruiser! When you put size and density into perspective it's easy to see how a 10,000 ton rock hurtling through the atmosphere at 44,000 mph could result in a 500 kiloton blast.
Finally, there were actual pieces of the rock that impacted earth along with evidence of those impact points, one of which was in a nearby frozen lake. Russian authorities have already begun the hunt to find any remaining fragments of the meteor, which are extremely valuable not only to scientific study, but from a monetary standpoint as well.
For the sake of contrast, here's footage of a Russian military communications satellite Meridian-5 deorbiting over the city of Novosibirsk after a failed launch attempt (note the speed):
But it Looked So Much Lower to the Ground in the Videos!
The visual evidence we have to go on is based upon Russian dashcams and security camera footage, which are mediocre at best, but can still provide us with some valuable data. For instance, the speed can be fairly accurately measured based upon it's transit speed across the sky and height relative to the ground. In the video footage it certainly seems to be much closer to the ground than 90,000 feet, but it's quite deceiving because of the sheer intensity of the burn. We also know it's relative altitude based upon the time it took for the sound of the shockwave to reach the ground, which was just over a minute. Sound (at sea level) travels at approximately 1,115 feet per second. Based upon, let's say 80 seconds, well that works out to 89,200 feet. In the grand scheme of things, that's not very high at all.
To put things into perspective, the Tunguska event--which was most likely a comet fragment--exploded only 6 miles (31,000 feet) above ground level with the force of nearly 30 megatons and as we know that blast knocked down an estimated 80 million trees over an area covering 2,150 square kilometres (830 square miles). It is estimated that the shock wave from the blast would have measured 5.0 on the Richter scale. To see an excellent visual representation of what this event may have looked like, check out Don Davis' 100th anniversary commemorative illustration here. An explosion of this magnitude is capable of destroying a large metropolitan area. If the Chelyabinsk meteor had exploded at that height we would have certainly seen much more widespread damage and likely more fragments actually impacting the ground.
If it Looks, Sounds and Acts Like a Meteor--It's Probably a Meteor
I think this was just what it was–a meteor strike over a populated area. Nothing more, nothing less. There are an estimated 5-10 meteors of this size which strike Earth every couple months but the vast majority of them are over oceans or polar regions where they go unnoticed by the population. I find it quite extraordinary to have actually witnessed something like this in our lifetime.
There will always be extraordinary conspiracy theories surrounding extraordinary natural events, but they also require extraordinary evidence to back them up. This wasn't a wayward UFO, it wasn't a military experiment gone awry, nor was it one of the Decepticons coming from the dark side of the moon. Chelyabinsk will go down in the history books as one of the most well documented cases of a meteor strike on record and we should all be thrilled to have seen such an astronomical treat as it unfolded in real time.