Russian meteor could be Pope resignation conspiracy, but I prefer science

It was one of those awful coincidences. Last Friday evening I was having a few beers with a friend, in a local pub. He was calculating the likely impact energy if 2012 DA14 – due to make a close pass over Indonesia – were to ever hit us.

Earth. An image I made with my Celestia installation (cool, free, science package).
Earth. An image I made with my Celestia installation (cool, free, science package).

There are websites with Java script that do this, but it’s easy yourself if you have figures for velocity and mass –  a function of volume and density – plus the formula and a calculator. (Yes, I know it had been published, but it’s fun to do the math. I’m a geek and so are my friends. Remember…geeks won….)

Nobody realised another object was about to explode over Chelyabinsk – ‘Tankograd’ of Second World War fame.

The 1200 injured from flying glass is the largest human toll recorded from a meteor strike. The cost to Russia will be in the millions of roubles. Not to mention the fact that thousands of people are facing sub-zero temperatures in windowless homes, until they can be fixed.

All that because the Pope resigned. Well, it’s obvious. The Conspirating Ruling Archaic Poodles, a secret cabal nobody has ever heard of, used their stooges to drop one of their orbiting Bombs Utilising Low Level Seekrit Hyper Invisible Termination on the Vatican, thus covering up the Pope’s resignation, but because secret organisations always make basic arithmetical errors, it hit Russia instead. I have proof this is true, because they fly in invisible black helicopters. Well, have you seen one? Quite. Proves they exist…

And yes, I know that is a really, really stupid theory…but hey, it’s not the dumbest one out there.

Needless to say, the science involved actually answers all questions. First off – the energy involved is mind-blowing on the scale of us mere humans.

How mind blowing? Try this. The Russian rock was maybe 10,000 tonnes mass and 17 metres diameter, by NASA estimate. Yet still exploded with an energy equivalent, some estimates suggest, of around 500,000 tons of TNT. How come?

Well, it’s entirely to do with kinetic energy, which you calculate according to the formula 1/2 MV<exp>2.  It was moving at over 63,000 km/h when it hit the atmosphere. That gave it a kinetic energy (roughly) of around 500,000,000,000,000 joules. Translated into human terms, that’s what a 1-kilowatt fan heater would emit if run constantly for 15,844 years (it would run out in about March in that last year).

That’s a lot of energy. So why did it explode? At the speed this sucker hit us, it was moving so fast it couldn’t push the atmosphere out of the way. The air was compressed ahead of it, got super-hot, and then began vapourising the front side of the meteor. But the back side was still ice-cold. After a while, differential thermal stresses exceeded the tensile strength of the object – and boom! A lot of the kinetic energy translated into a massive shock wave, shattering glass over that huge area, and powerful enough to be detected in Alaska. Some became heat. Some was retained in the fragments of meteor that hurtled into the ground, which will be found sooner or later (they’re looking now).

The take-home lesson from Friday? The odds of a damaging meteor hitting us, by human time-spans, are low . But these things do happen. And we didn’t see this one coming despite a determined effort of late to detect everything in our vicinity that might be a threat. We’ve even found the S-1VB stage from Apollo 12, which is lobbing around in a weird orbit nearby. But Friday’s rock – still a city-buster – was too small.

A Hubble picture of Jupiter after it had been machine-gunned by Comet Shoemaker-Levy in 1994. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.
A Hubble picture of Jupiter after it had been machine-gunned by Comet Shoemaker-Levy in 1994. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Worse, even if we had seen it, there was nothing we could have done.  The laws of physics are clear; Bruce Willis and a gang of Texan oil-riggers aren’t going to save the day at the last moment. I’ve explained why in an earlier post – check it out. Even if you could carry enough rocket fuel to get to an incoming rock and blow it up (which you can’t….trust me…) most of the bits will still hit the Earth with the same net kinetic energy. And it’s that energy that’s the problem.

That doesn’t mean we can’t find ways of handling it. Given decades of warning,  even spray-painting the side of a space rock black will work, by changing the way it re-radiates solar energy, asymmetrically. Over years, that will change the orbit.

Of course, space debris usually isn’t isolated. A comet can break up, leaving trails of objects following its original orbit. Jupiter was slammed by just such a train ‘o doom  in 1994. There’s a fair chance that we might have to try and deflect half a dozen potential impactors all at once.

Personally I’m not going to lose sleep over it. No point worrying about things we can’t control. And the prospect of being slammed by a space rock is pretty far down the list. Here in New Zealand, for instance, it’s more likely we’ll be hit by an earthquake – in fact, there was a small one in my city on Saturday and another tremor this morning.

What’s your take? Should we worry about that which we cannot control? Or get on with life?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Kindness 2013’ returns next week. Coming up this week: more sixty-second writing tips, Write It Now part 6 – and more.


119 thoughts on “Russian meteor could be Pope resignation conspiracy, but I prefer science

  1. Very enjoyable. I think the Russian one was only 10 tons though. 🙂 Anyway, it seems pretty obvious to me that the Triads in China are to blame, they were trying to break the Russian economy so as to make billions in the subsequent Black Market Bonanza. Wake up!

    1. Heh! 🙂

      Apropos the mass of the meteor – the 10,000 tonnes is NASA’s figure, which we can cross-check using the typical meteor density of 5 gm/cubic centimetres, the estimated diameter (which gives us the volume), and the formula for calculating mass from volume, which I’ve written to avoid Greek and superscript:

      M = Density (Dn) x [Pi x radius cubed]

      Where Dn = 5 gm/cubic centimetre, Pi = 3.14159, and radius = 850 cm (keeping the SI units consistent on each side of the multiplication). Thus:
      M = 5 x [3.14159 x (850 x 850 x 850)]

      – and resolving that gives a mass of 9,646,644,795 grams, or 9646.64 tonnes..

      Probably it wasn’t perfectly spherical, so there is uncertainty in the figure – but even at 20 percent margin of error it’s still getting up to the same sort of mass as HMS Belfast.

      All this will doubtless get refined once the specific density of the object is known.

      Still in geek-land, I have to correct my description of the atmospheric compression effects, in the post – it’s not just thermal stress, it’s also mechanical compression that blows these things up. They literally burst from the hammer-blow My omission.

      1. Apparently the explosion is due to temperature variations from front to back as the front is super-heated by the atmospheric friction whilst the rear remains many degrees subzero. 🙂

  2. The connection between the Pope’s resignation and the unforeseen meteor is priceless! Tell that to all the Siberians without windows, right? Seems that most windows have now been replaced but I was amazed at how the meteor did not seem to be a blip on any screen anywhere. Very funny post, Matthew, and thank you for the science!


    1. The funniest part is that somebody found my blog today, by google search string reading ‘pope resigns meteor and earthquakes’ – and I thought I’d made that connection up! 🙂

  3. I think if we can find a way to prevent a tragedy, we should at least put some thought into that. But if we can’t do a thing, we should accept that as the case until we can do something.
    We should also not have crazy conspiracy theories, because they just waste time and energy and let us know who is actually crazy in the world.

      1. I think they’re only entertaining in fiction, because then they actually happen. in reality, it just annoys me when someone says a missile with holographic technology was used on the Twin Towers or that Obama is a Muslim socialist dictator intent on destroying America or that the moon landing was faked so as the government could get us to buy moon-themed products so they can control us.

        1. It’s amazing what people can come up with. Actually, sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. Take the ‘moon landing cover up’ notion. It’s true – there WAS one – in the Soviet Union. After the Soviet lunar programme failed to produce the goods in time, they pretended they’d never had any such programme. Sour grapes at the US winning – and annoying their cosmonauts no end, who were keen to go. This despite their monster booster exploding twice on launch, which couldn’t be concealed so easily. But they got away with the cover-up, at least until the end of the Cold War. Today, their LK lunar module (which got to hardware stage) is a museum display…

  4. No it was not The Conspirating Ruling Archaic Poodles. It was the New Post-Orthodox REFORM Conspirating Ruling Archaic Poodles!

    With help from the Judean People’s Front.

  5. Thanks Matthew for being both illuminating and funny! As a side note, that is hilarious that someone actually googled that!

    1. Yeah, I should have known anything I could make up by way of a laugh would probably be thought of by somebody else…as a serious venture… Actually, I get some really weird search strings finding this blog, every so often. Sometimes I’m even found via words or phrases that aren’t on my blog at all. I have no idea how this happens!

  6. I say we should just get on with life. I mean, this stuff ain’t rocket science. Well, actually it is rocket science, but still. The earth being struck by a meteor is probably inevitable — eventually. But it may be a very, very long time. BTW, tying the Pope’s resignation to the meteor is great.My hat is off to you!!!

  7. Oh, my, goodness, I can’t believe you made astrophysics enjoyable for this common girl. Although I admit I skipped over the actual numbers…but I got the point, and it didn’t hurt. I’m trying to crystallize the take-home message I to a useful activity. Maybe just knowing that I can paint on rocks and affect space trash is good enough.
    Greetings from the Chesapeake.

    1. Thank you – and greetings from New Zealand! Physics is a great field & I have a lot of fun with it. Weirdly, it’s not the main thing I do… glad you liked the post!

  8. This is a very funny article, but with scientific support. I actually understood a bit of it, but not too much.

    Too bad about all that glass. People will wear serious footwear even if it actually gets hot in Russia.

    Congrats on the Freshly Pressed, that’s how I found your’s.

    Check out mine at

    1. Hi – yes, happy for you to do that, with acknowledgement & a link back. Glad you enjoyed the post! I do these occasionally as a variation on my usual writing-related content – never guessed I’d ever be picked up for Freshly Pressed!

  9. I can already see the next book out at the local book store, There was angel’s and demons and now we are in for a version of “Oh by the way! there was a meteor too!” 😛

  10. Just get on with life. There will be no Bruce willis saving us (like you said) so why worry about the inevitable (and it’s going to happen I tell ya!)

  11. I think we should carry-on. Only GOD is there to help us. And He is still protecting us. O you people of the book!(Jews and Christians) don’t you believe there is a real God..

  12. A thousand times – thank you. I’m still smiling after reading your post. You speak my language, I’ve posted about the paint ball asteroid defence, and talk space weather constantly. Should we worry? Hell yes, and no.I’m obsessive about space weather simply because I grasp the implications of a Carrington, or Bastille Day event. Our fragile existence will undoubtedly be rocked by the likes of KT one day, and not a thing we can do about it. Live life, understand the miracles of science that allow us a fleeting moment in cosmic time.

  13. As a huge fan of ridiculous conspiracy theories, I found this very amusing.
    And, of course, we should get on with our lives!

  14. Congrats MJ!
    I wrote a blog post three days before – Heads up! Meteor/Asteroid and Party Crashers, knowing that a near miss would happen, but didn’t know about the one that would hit Russia. My blog went viral for a couple of hours since there really wasn’t much on the internet at the time! I am still getting a few hits. I am sure they are getting a giggle out of the photoshopped image of myself riding a meteor!

    1. I just checked your post out. Cool! Yeah, it’s amazing how things collide – who’d have thought in a million years that the near-miss (which was THE news) would get trumped so quickly?

  15. I don’t worry about things floating around in space, I just hope for the best. Nothing I can do if it hits right? My buddy Abby though, if she thinks about it, in fact if she just thinks about the vastness of space and how tiny we are, she goes into a full blown panic attack. Moral of the story, do not bring up space around Abby. I am excited that it hit somewhere that has all those dashboard camera’s, so we have cool footage of it exploding. 🙂

    1. It was just amazing how it was filmed. Thinking about it, I guess there isn’t much that misses a camera these days – and those dash cams in Russia must pick up an awful lot of ordinary public life, too (which is probably interesting in places).

  16. Just get on with life. If you can’t control it don’t worry about it. And frankly, nobody reading this in 2013 is going to die because a meteor hits the earth full-on. The likelihood of that happening is so low, and it will happen eventually, but not anytime soon.

    1. Quite right. And I’m not losing any sleep over it. There have actually been incidents of people being hurt by meteors – isolated, usually involving being around debris when it was kicked up. But I think in the ordinary world and ordinary lifespan, you’re more likely to be run down crossing the road.

  17. Wow, congrats on being freshly pressed, I hadn’t been there in ages and was surprised to see a face I recognised and a post I’d already read! 🙂 Hope it brings you good fortune and much kindness.

  18. Great post! I agree with you – no point worrying about it. Hey, you gotta die somehow or another – there’s only so many things we can do. Still hope the research in better detection as well as evasion continues…

    1. It looks very much as if this incident has prodded various authorities into looking at the problem – and I guess it’ll be pursued pretty seriously for a while, at least until someone figures out the cost of actually doing the near-earth survey down to 1-metre size rocks. At which point some bureaucrat will decide it’s not worth it…

  19. Fantastic and educational post. As someone who grew up in the early 1980s, though, my first and strongest impression was simply that if this had happened 30 years ago, would the Soviets have had the patience to figure it out? Or with nuclear weapons on 10-minute alert, would this have been a replay of the Korean airliner shoot-down and we wouldn’t be talking about this?

    On second thought, if this had happened at the right moment, say, 2300 years ago, might we have invented a new religion?

    1. Thank you. I gather we came pretty close to nuclear armageddon more than once on the back of various false alarms back in the eighties – of which this meteor would have been a pretty ‘solid’ one. Luckily for us sanity prevailed.

    1. Luckily not for a while…but yeah. Have to admit, the notion of everything being flattened by an ‘alternative universe’ expanding from nothing in the middle of our one is kinda weird, but I guess that’s particle physics for you…

  20. Silly. There’s no conspiracy. The US Navy was testing their rail gun again (max power this time). It missed the target completely and the round got away from them. An unfortunate accident, really. 😉

  21. Your topic was very interesting. I was just watching a video of Joceyln Bell Burnell, she was talking about how they have the technology to strike down a meteorite from our military ships. Burnell was mostly talking about the conspiracy of 2012.

    1. Intriguing – though I’m not sure that’s really possible yet. Some of the US Navy’s Aegis-equipped ships can certainly shoot down satellites, using the SM-3 missile – it’s been tested – but a satellite is a whole different ball game.

  22. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! And thank you so much for that explanation. I had not made that connection myself, but I think you’re on to something.

    1. Thank you! I never expected to get the accolade. And as I say, now everybody in the world’s going to know I am really a beer-swilling geek who figures out complex physics problems for fun… 🙂

  23. It’s a good thing that rock wasn’t any bigger, else it could have flattened the entire city. I personally think we should invest more in trying to keep an eye out for meteors, comets, asteroids, etc. While we probably couldn’t nuke a city killer if it took us by surprise, at the very least we could try and evacuate the people in its path. But you’re right–the odds are pretty low that this is going to be a major problem.

    1. Yes, the Russians were very lucky. Or if the trajectory had been a little different, it might have exploded over the city directly. I agree – detection and deflection tech would be an obvious investment, definitely way better than some of the things the world seems to spend its production on. We’ve gone some of the way now, but there’s a good deal more to do. My guess is that it won’t happen seriously, though, until after a major ‘city buster’ disaster. Too late, of course, for whoever gets hit by it.

  24. “Worse, even if we had seen it, there was nothing we could have done. The laws of physics are clear… What does the damage is the net kinetic energy the asteroid delivers to Earth. If you hit an incoming asteroid with a nuke, it’ll turn into a cloud of fragments, most still heading our way with virtually all the original kinetic energy”

    I’d say this is true for really big asteroids broken into just a few pieces but the one at Chelyabinsk was small enough to be blown up into smithereens with a nuclear warhead. Even if all the tiny fragments had the same kinetic energy what they do not have anymore is the same surface, which means that the atmosphere will burn anything that small before reaching Earth.

    1. You’re right – the surface area of a lot of small particles is greater, hence they will interact more with the atmosphere and maybe burn up before hitting the ground. Net energy is dumped into the air rather than air-and-ground, over a wider area. With the Chelyabinsk one, if we’d managed to disintegrate it, they wouldn’t have had quite the same intensity of ‘bang’ and, maybe, nobody injured.

      Curious thing – in the weeks since, we haven’t heard a whisper about how the place is actually getting on, or how badly some of them were hurt and whether they’re recovering. News always seems to be about the immediate spectacle.

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