Meteorite fever

On the 15th February 2013 a previously unknown asteroid entered the earth’s atmosphere and some seventeen seconds later exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk situated just east of the Ural Mountains, in the aptly named Oblast region.   No bigger than a small block of flats and weighing the equivalent of seven million bags of sugar it disintegrated high above the ground, sending a sonic boom which shattered windows and injured hundreds of people, mainly through flying debris.

The explosion unleashed a shock wave which could be felt right round the globe, picked up by instruments originally designed to detect a nuclear war.  Within seconds celebrity scientists had reached for their phones, using billions of watts of power to ring their agents and pitch ideas for meteorite based documentaries.  The atmosphere around Chelyabinsk became super-heated by the number of small planes and helicopters circling the area and there has been a noted effect upon global warming caused by the greenhouse gasses escaping from the thousands of camper-vans parked around the site where fragments of the rock fell to the ground.

The area around the city of over one million inhabitants has become pock marked by scientists, bounty hunters and other local characters looking for the small baked rocks some of which are no larger than a pea.  The largest piece is estimated to be about half a tonne in weight and is believed to be at the bottom of a local lake.  So far around a hundred needles have been found in the metre-deep snow covered haystack leading to widespread feeding frenzy in sales of space rock.

Meanwhile, back at the universities and other scientific institutions a knock on effect has been felt.  Thanks to the doom-mongers and soothsayers interest has grown rapidly in the likely or unlikely chance of the earth being hit by an astral body larger than a filing cabinet in the near future, causing vice-chancellors and budget holders to reach for their tablet devices to start completing application forms for the billions of dollars of grant money now available.  Papers have been presented on how to spot asteroids, how to track their orbits through space and time and how to move them off a collision course with the world using ever more outlandish ideas.   There has even been a proposal that the asteroid was the work of ancient aliens displeased with the way humans have turned out.

The excitement is palpable.  There are thousands of hours of video footage to be shown; most of it regurgitated from previously aired shows, as well as millions of column inches to be written about asteroids, where they come from and the threat they pose to human extinction.  The meteorite of Chelyabinsk may be the most exciting thing to literally hit astronomy and geology for years and will go a long way to securing the livelihoods of many a television scientist until at least the next calamitous event

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