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What Really Happened in Russia This Morning?

As you've probably heard already, a meteor exploded above the Chelyabinsk region of central Russia earlier today. It injured over 900 people, at least two of them seriously. But what the hell was it? UFOs? A missile test gone wrong? Or... an American...
February 15, 2013, 7:14pm

As you've probably heard already because you're bound to have at least one friend on Facebook or IRL who's constantly freaking out about conspiracies and the imminent end of the world and collapse of society, a meteor exploded above the Chelyabinsk region of central Russia earlier today. It injured over 900 people, at least two of them seriously.

Since then, the web has been flooded with dash-cam videos of the meteor streaking across the sky before exploding, sending a shockwave that shattered windows and knocked people to the ground. It wasn't immediately known what caused the explosion, with some speculating it was possibly UFOs, a missile test gone wrong or—from the more misguidedly pensive among them—perhaps America invading 25 years too late:


Others saw the event as the perfect opportunity to advertise their new video game, with the makers of Crysis 3, Crytek, promoting their Twitter ad to the top of the #RussianMeteor hashtag under the phrase, "The End of Days Has Arrived." Way to calm the panicking masses, Crytek:

Frantic reports started to come through from the Russian blogosphere, with a number of bloggers detailing their pretty terrifying-sounding experiences. Efrosine wrote, "My husband in the center of Chelyabinsk says that the cats are really shitting themselves in fear. When he came home they jumped on him and cried." Thank you, efrosine—it's a blessing to know that someone's thinking of the cats.

Alexander from Moscow wrote to us, pointing the finger at North Korea: "The military now took control of the accident area. Now the local people have to live under curfew. Russian television lies that it is America to blame. Meteor?! Are you joking? It can't be, it's certainly to do with military operation. Maybe it's the DPRK (North Korea) farting off their faulty missiles."

I had a quick chat with Jamal from Russian rap group Triagrutrika, who told me, "I woke up, and my wife shouted 'It was a miracle!' I had no fucking clue what had happened, and she said, 'Everything was like lightning, brighter than the sun.' I didn't notice too much panic in the streets because people figured if it was a bomb that we'd already be dead.


"We'll never know the truth; the government told us it was a meteor so everyone believes it. Our governor is saying that it will be dealt with in a couple of days, like it's not a big deal. But people on the news are saying that it could have just been the first bit of an asteroid that might fly extremely close to the Earth tonight. Frankly, I'm still extremely worried."

Picture of the rumored lake-impact site near the town of Chebakul in the Chelyabinsk region.

Surely Russia's leaders could be counted on to give a sane and reassuring explanation of events, right? Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vice Chairman of the State Duma and a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (so, you'd have thought, a pretty level-headed guy) said, "This is not a meteorite crash, this is a test of a new weapon by the Americans. John Kerry, the US secretary of state who couldn't get through to the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, all week, wanted to warn Lavrov on Monday, but Lavrov was away on a trip. He wanted to warn that there would be such a provocation and it could affect Russia. There [in space] nothing ever falls. When it falls, it's done by people's hands." So that'd be a no then.

What about the clergy? The prior of the Holy Trinity Church, Archpriest of Chelyabinsk, Igor Shestkov, called the explosion a visit from God: "This is how the Lord visited us in the day of Candlemas."


I was doubtful of the missile/UFO/holy-act theories, so I spoke to Brendan Owens, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, to get a better idea of what happened.

VICE: So what exploded above Russia this morning? A meteor? An asteroid? A UFO?
Brendan Owens: It seems as if it was one major meteor. When we get a particularly large one, we call them fireballs, which are much bigger than a normal shooting star. It'll be interesting to see when people start to find pieces that survived the atmosphere, because then we'll see whether they're of a stony composition or a more metallic composition, which will tell us something more about the original object that entered the atmosphere.

How come nobody saw this coming? I thought there were people watching the skies all the time?
Yeah, it was a little bit of a random one. We can’t account for everything, unfortunately, and when it comes to smaller objects, they’re trickier to spot. On top of that, this has actually come from a sunward direction, so you can't see that if you’re an amateur astronomer.

Skip to 1:20 for the shockwave.

What caused the explosion in midair? Was that when it broke the sound barrier?
That’s still under debate. It was definitely traveling at a fast enough speed to break the sound barrier, so there would have been a sonic boom, but there are recorded scenes that show another explosion, indicating that the actual object blew up. Something similar happened in the Tunguska event in 1908. A meteor came crashing through the atmosphere, but into a much less populated area, exploded above the ground, and flattened trees for about 800 square miles.


So the shockwave was from the explosion and that's what caused most of the damage?
I’d say a lot of the structural damage—although I haven't seen many photos of it—indicate that an object or objects smashed into buildings as well as the shockwave.

The Chelyabinsk zinc factory that was damaged by the meteor.

I mean, there was that zinc factory that exploded.
Yeah, they’re still trying to work out if something inside that building caused it to explode, so we can’t be certain about that. But the meteorites themselves do fall from the sky, so depending on how many fragments there were, that's the equivalent of dumbbells falling from the sky, which are obviously going to do some damage.

Is there any estimation so far on the size of this particular meteor? 
The Russian scientific council have estimated it as about 10 tonnes, but the original object might have weighed even more. So that's 10 tonnes of meteor traveling at the speed of 33,000 mph.

That's a fun thought. And now people are saying that there might be more coming.
It’s unlikely that there'll be more. It seems to be a cosmic coincidence—there's no physical link between the asteroid (DA14) that's flying close today and the one that struck this morning. They're on a completely different trajectory, so it really is just a very surprising coincidence. Another thing is that this asteroid has been tracked by NASA since last year, so we know it’s not going to hit any, say, communication satellites, or anything like that.


What would happen if DA14 were to hit the Earth?
With 2012 DA14, we know it’s a stony asteroid and about 50 meters across. So, depending on stress and strains as it passed through our atmosphere, it would be large enough to cause major devastation of a city. It wouldn't be a civilisation killer, though; the damage would be relatively localized.

Where should budding doomsday preppers be looking if they want to catch a glimpse of DA14?
It'll be between the handle and the bucket of the Plough at around 9PM, so if you look in there with binoculars or a small telescope, you should see something move. To put the speed of this object into perspective, it covers the same distance of how the full moon appears in the sky about every 45 seconds. So, every 45 seconds, it will have done a moon-sized jump. It keeps moving so you actually don’t want something where you’re really zoomed quite close—you’d want a big wide view to see it.

Thanks, Brendan, I'll be sure to whip out my binoculars tonight.

Thanks to Gleb Timofeev and Alina Khametova

Follow Henry on Twitter: @Henry_Langston