Meteorite steals asteroid’s thunder

Russian 'dash cams' fill web with amateur video

For the last week, stargazers around the world have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of a 150-meter asteroid that will safely fly past the Earth around 2:25 p.m. Eastern today at a distance of about 17,200 miles above its surface—the closest-ever approach for rock that large.

But an unexpected meteor that blazed through the sky over Russia’s Ural Mountains early Friday morning stole the asteroid’s thunder, almost literally. The Russian Academy of Sciences told reporters that the meteor entered the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of at least 33,000 mph. It then broke apart about 18 to 32 miles above ground, causing a meteorite shower that injured more than 500 people, mainly from broken glass.

The Internet immediately lit up with awesome amateur videos of the meteor lighting up the Russian sky, and new outlets quickly began rounding up the most impressive:

“Scientists estimate that 1,000 tons to more than 10,000 tons of meteoritic material falls on the Earth each day,” according to NASA. “However, most of this material is very tiny — in the form of micrometeoroids or dust-like grains a few micrometers in size.” Damaging strikes by large objects are fairly rare.

So how were all those amateur videographers in Russia so prepared? As The Guardian noted, the meteorite hit during the daytime and “the glare of the sun masked its approach, like a fighter pilot using the sun to blind an enemy to attack”

Apparently, Russians have grown very fond of dashboard-mounted cameras, according to a post from Business Insider published in December and another from published in January. As the latter put it:

There are several hard truths that have led to the explosion in Russian dash cam videos, including poor road conditions. Those long, hard winters do serious damage to the roads and lead to really tough driving conditions when local governments can’t clear snow and ice. As a result, accidents do happen more frequently.

It’s not all the fault of the elements, though. Corruption is rampant in the Russian Federation, and that’s led most motorists to take matters into their own hands. It’s not uncommon for a driver to be pulled over by the notorious Russian Highway Patrol (GAI) and harassed into paying a bribe. Dash cams afford at least a little protection from baseless accusations.

The dash-cams’ popularity has led a proliferation of lowbrow crash and fight videos on YouTube, but they finally bore some scientific fruit when they captured the entry and explosion of Friday’s meteor. (NASA also snapped a good shot of its vapor trail from space.)

As the day wears on, attention will undoubtedly drift back to asteroid 2012 DA14 and its near brush with Earth. On Thursday, NASA posted a video from an Australian amateur astronomer, who captured the rock making a “preview appearance” on its way to buzz the tower, but it’s not nearly as exciting as the Russian dash-cam videos. In fact, it’s unlikely that any footage of the asteroid will measure up.

Nonetheless, this week’s close encounters have revived the national conversation about whether or not we are doing to enough to find, track, and prepare for near-Earth objects that could do far more damage than breaking glass. We can only hope that once interest in this week’s stunning videos and photos has waned, that discussion will continue.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , ,