Raining rocks

A reader writes:

If you're up for it, I'd really love an article on why the size of that meteorite varies from 10 tons to 10,000, why the rarity of it is 1 in 5 years to 1 in 100, and why the explosion is everything from 1 to 500 Hiroshimas (I hadn't realized that was a new standard measure until today).


Right after everybody started goggling at YouTube videos of lights in the sky over Chelyabinsk, and blessing once again the everlasting source of comedy and horror that is the Russian dash-cam phenomenon, a lot of reporters were probably hitting the telephones. (Or just Twitter, now that having the first story is so much more important than having the first correct story.)

Anyway, early on there was an estimate allegedly from the Russian Academy of Sciences that said the meteoroid was only about ten tons. I don't know who at the Academy first said that to a journalist, since there doesn't seem to be an official press release or anything, but that mass estimate seems tied to them.

Since this estimate came before anybody had pulled together enough reports and readings to know for sure the size, velocity and explosion altitude of the rock, it's not surprising they were way off. I presume they just estimated a relatively low airburst of a relatively small rock, enough to do this sort of damage...

...without requiring the meteoroid to be a one-per-century size.

Around the same time, the European Space Agency similarly estimated the rock to be relatively small, with the caveat that they didn't yet have "precise information on the size, mass and composition of the object".

But then NASA estimated the rock was much bigger and heavier and blew up much higher. Since then, better readings have caused NASA to estimate it was a little larger again, putting it in the one-per-century category. I think this pretty conclusively overrules the early, low estimates.

This may also make it fortunate that this meteoroid came in at a grazing angle, and exploded so high up. I'm no expert on meteorite dynamics, but if the Chelyabinsk rock had managed to get down to ten kilometres or lower before it exploded, it would have Tunguska-ed the city, not just outshone the sun and then broken lots of windows.

This may have been impossible, especially if this meteoroid was one of the common stony types. Nickel-iron meteoroids are much rarer than stony ones, but also much more likely to make it to the surface without "exploding". The explosion effect when a meteoroid disintegrates in the atmosphere comes from the much greater surface area per mass of the fragments; they decelerate faster and heat up more, creating the kaboom. Whatever bits survive this process are generally small enough that they're only travelling at terminal velocity when they hit the ground.

I think gigantic dinosaur-killer meteorites can't help but make it to the surface largely intact, and ruin everybody's whole week. At the other end of the size chart are the tiny micrometeorites that drizzle down constantly, which anybody can harvest from the roof of a building.

I agree that using the Hiroshima bomb as an explosion-size yardstick is a bit silly, since it's not as if many people now living have a personal, visceral understanding of what that means. You might as well say something like "the meteoroid weighed more than 9000 tonnes, as much as fifteen thousand adult bluefin tuna".

I propose we use the PEPCON explosion instead.

The two biggest explosions there, which happened almost simultaneously, added up to only about 2.7 kilotons of TNT. The Chelyabinsk meteoroid explosion was, according to NASA's corrected estimate, close to 500 kilotons.

UPDATE: Phil Plait, the moderately famous actual astronomer who you should obviously have listened to about this stuff before you wasted minutes of your life on the above, has a couple of articles about the Russian meteor here and here.

Psycho Science is a... sort of... regular feature here. Ask me your science questions, and I'll answer them. Probably.

And then commenters will, I hope, correct at least the most obvious flaws in my answer.

14 Responses to “Raining rocks”

  1. Fallingwater Says:

    Or we could start rating explosions by the number of times Russian drivers say "blyat!" while watching them. This one's a biggie, so I'd estimate it at a hundred thousand blyats.

    • dan Says:

      Once you find out about "blyat!", you suddenly notice its ubiquity.

      Also, when watching videos of Muslim people on one or the other side of bullets or explosions, I find it helpful to mentally substitute every use of the "allahu akhbar!" vocal tic with what it actually usually seems to mean: "Fuck! Shit! Cunt! Oh fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Shiiiiiiit!..."

      I imagine they'd find this hugely insulting, but if you insist on killing people while shouting incessantly about God, I cordially invite you to take your god and shove it up your arse.

      • Malcolm Says:

        Slight tangent -- swearing *is* very culturally specific, so saying "what it actually means" makes me twitch a bit.

        When I first got familiar with Dutch I found it hard to understand that e.g.

        "god damn", "get cancer" == unimaginably offensive;
        "f**k" == not actually a swear work;
        "c**t" == about as offensive as 'poo-poo', suitable for printing on the front page of a broadsheet etc.

        • Fallingwater Says:

          I'd be surprised if there was one language in which "get cancer" wasn't unimaginably offensive.

          While we're on the topic of regional insults and profanity, if Italy suddenly decided to go all Russia-style dashcam-crazy, you could pretty much substitute "blyat!" with "cazzo!" and you'd have essentially the same thing. It means dick, as in the male reproductive organ, but we've developed its use into an art form and you'll hear it everywhere (as Paolo demonstrates - it's subtitled "gatso", which somehow makes it even funnier).

          • bjw Says:

            Clearly english is one language in which "get cancer" isn't unimaginably offensive.
            I have never seen it censored out as opposed to

      • Fallingwater Says:

        From what I read (on Reddit - where else?), "allahu akhbar" is the local equivalent of "oh my god". Which appears to make sense, considering how it's usually uttered.

        Still, to me it can't help but sound like they're all invoking Admiral Ackbar.

        • dan Says:

          Given how much of a vocal tic it seems to be - many of these guys never seem to draw breath between God-Is-Greats when anything exciting's going on - I can only imagine the phrase has been bleached of all real semantic meaning from their point of view, and is no more religiously significant than if a Christian says "Jesus!" when they hit their thumb with a hammer.

          From everyone else's point of view, of course, the constant Allahing makes these guys look like the total religious Daleks they're so often accused of being. But I'm willing to believe it's Just What You Do as far as some or many of them are concerned, and they are not over-burdened with concern about others' opinions, given the other more life-threatening demands upon their time.

          Perhaps real serious five-long-prayers-a-day guys really do heap meaning on "Allahu Akhbar!", though. In which case saying it's no more meaningful than an action-movie hero saying "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus Jesus Jesus!!" as he escapes the latest hail of gunfire is entirely unfair.

          But that, of course, brings it back into "screw that god, dude" territory.

          • TwoHedWlf Says:

            Watch any video of something happening in the US, especially in the midwest or southern states you'll hear a lot of "Oh my god" constantly and repeated in a very similar manner.

          • cr Says:


            That is one awesome video. Love the 'Jesus counter'. And the guy actually says "Lawd have mercy!" at one point, I didn't think anyone outside of cartoon Negroes ever said that.

            Myself, I tend to say "Holy fucking Jesus Christ on a bicycle!" when sufficiently provoked, which as you can guess is not a pious statement.

  2. Max Says:

    Nice writeup. Also, you're probably right about the PEPCON blast being a more widely known "unit" right now - I guess the only unanswered question remains how many milli-PEPCONS would the even more widely known but presumably much smaller Mythbusters concrete-truck detonation equal... ;)

  3. majormonkey Says:

    Damage/distance calculator here http://impact.ese.ic.ac.uk/

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