The Incredible Russian Meteor, Explained

This is about more than just the cool videos. This is a meteor! Actually, it's a meteorite, and it wasn't the meteorite that hurt all those people, exactly, and, yes, you have meteorite insurance — and, no, this is not all John Kerry's fault. Here are those and other answers you'll need to talk about this cosmically awesome event all weekend long.

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On Friday a 10-ton meteor screamed through the Russian sky, creating a sonic shockwave that hurt more than 1,000 people — and led to the creation of some jaw-dropping YouTube videos. But this is about more than just videos, people. This is a meteor! Actually, it's a meteorite, and it wasn't the meteorite that hurt all those people, exactly, and, yes, you have meteorite insurance — and, no, this is not all John Kerry's fault. Here are those and other answers you'll need to talk about this cosmically awesome event all weekend long:

So, what happened again? 

Well, around 9:30 a.m. local time a meteor burned through the sky over Central Russia. It wasn't exactly alien-invasion crazy, but it still looked pretty crazy — like this:

Wow. Did it explode? Can meteors explode? 

Well, it's more like this: When the stuff from space comes hurtling toward earth and breaches our atmosphere, it heats up, and the friction creates heat and light. Look how bright this thing got:

There are now even reports that the meteor got so bright some people say they were blinded. And the blast released so many kilotons of energy that it was actually more powerful than this week's North Korean nuclear test. Indeed, according to Nature, it's the biggest rock to hit Earth since another Siberian meteor crash 25 years ago.

But should I even be calling this a meteor?

Let's figure out what to call this thing. As much as we'd like to go for The Tears of Beyoncé, there is a difference between meteors and meteorites. Megan Garber over at The Atlantic has a great breakdown:

When pieces of space debris -- usually parts of comets or asteroids -- are on a collision course with Earth, they're called "meteoroids"; when meteoroids enter the Earth's atmosphere, they're called "meteors." Most meteors burn up in Earth's atmosphere before they reach the ground. But when one of these objects doesn't burn up -- if it survives entry long enough to strike Earth -- it becomes a "meteorite."

So that giant fireball streaking through the sky was a meteor... up to a point. Everyone's still trying to figure out exactly how deep the impact really was, but as of now it does look like this thing survived long enough to become a meteorite and affect more than just a few injured arms and legs and eyes. "The governor of the Chelyabinsk district reported that a search team had found an impact crater on the outskirts of a city about 50 miles west of Chelyabinsk," report The New York Times's Ellen Barry and Andrew Kramer. They add, "An official from the Interior Ministry told the Russian news agency Interfax that three large pieces of meteorite debris had been retrieved in the area and that 10,000 police officers are searching for more."

Bill Nye went on CNN this morning to help explain:

So there you have it: Call it a meteorite.

So, this meteorite struck "50 miles west of Chelyabinsk." Did it hit anyone?

The Russian Interior Ministry now says that 1,200 people were hurt — but not at the site of the strike. Thankfully, "50 miles of west of Chelyabinsk" is not nearly as populated as Cheylabinsk itself, as you can see in this density map:

How did so many people get hurt by a cosmic phenomenon that looked cool but didn't strike anyone?

Well, the meteorite was was traveling very fast, and even though it was breaking apart, it was the shockwave that did the damage: The sonic boom shattered glass, and so most of the injuries being reported have to do with glass shards. And chunks may have hit buildings:

Photo appears to show severe damage to a zinc factory caused by Russian meteorite (RT photo)…

— Matthew Keys (@TheMatthewKeys) February 15, 2013

What does a cosmic glass wound look like, exactly?

We told you there were good videos:

So how big was this thing? Bigger than the asteroid that's supposed to be whisking by us today?

Russian scientists estimate that the meteorite weighed in at around 10 tons, according to the AP, or about 20,000 pounds — and that it hurtled toward Earth... at 33,000 miles per hour. And apparently 10 tons in space is chump change compared to the asteroid that will not be destroying Earth this evening, which is apparently the size of an Olympic swimming pool. Space agencies have carefully predicted the path of that beast many times over already, because if it ever hit Earth (it won't), it would leave a crater larger than all of Monaco.

Shouldn't someone have seen this coming?

This won't exactly comfort anyone, but the answer appears to be no. "Russia's space agency Roscosmos said the meteorite was travelling at a speed of 19 miles per second and that such events were hard to predict," reads the wire report from The Chicago Tribune.

If this was hard so hard to predict, and moving that fast, how did people catch the videos?

Well, lots of Russians have dashboard mounted cameras in their car to deal with widespread corruption and insurance scams, leading the country to be a leading source of YouTube videos. So the Russians aren't lucky with their viral videos so much as coincidentally prepared.

So we're sure that this isn't an alien invasion? Or a nuke? 

Yeah, we're pretty sure it's a meteorite. Though that hasn't stopped one Russian leader from claiming that the space debris was actually an American weapon. Here's the report from The Voice of Russia:

“Those were not meteorites, it was Americans testing their new weapons," [Controversial Liberal leader Vladimir] Zhirinovsky confessed to journalists. "[US Secretary of State] John Kerry wanted to warn [Russia’s Foreign Minister] Lavrov on Monday, he was looking for Lavrov, and Lavrov was on a trip. He meant to warn Lavrov about a provocation against Russia,” he said.

Since conspiracy theories are out there, we present this... without comment:

What else can I brag about to my friends about the Russian "meteorite" this weekend?

Well, it is Friday, and we don't blame you if you want to burn some work minutes YouTubing the best videos and showing your friends. And, well, when you go to that cocktail party later you can wow them (depending on what kind of friends you have) by assuring everybody that most homeowner insurance covers meteorites because they're considered "falling objects," along with satellites and other space junk.

Or, you could always make a Bruce Willis joke:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.