MOSCOW—A meteorite plunged to earth in Russia's Ural Mountains Friday, exploding into flames in a powerful blast that smashed windows and injured around 1,000 people.
Amateur videos broadcast on state television showed an object streaking across the sky trailing smoke around 9:20 a.m. local time before bursting into a fireball. Residents in the city of Chelyabinsk, the largest in the affected region, described a shock wave that blew in doors, smashed glass and set off car alarms.
"The light was so intense that it completely illuminated the courtyard of our apartment block," said Sergei Zakharov, head of the Russian Geographical Society in Chelyabinsk. "The sound, the shock wave came around six minutes later. No one could understand what had happened. I’d compare it to the explosion of a large flare bomb."
The Emergency Situations Ministry said almost 1,000 people sought medical attention, mostly for cuts from flying glass. Forty-three people were hospitalized with injuries. Around 3,000 buildings were damaged by the blast, which blew a hole in the walls of a metals factory in Chelyabinsk, approximately 1,500 kilometers east of Moscow.
The unusual sight sowed confusion among some locals. Amateur video showed children in one school streaming out of a classroom and screaming.
"We didn’t understand what was happening. We thought an airplane had crashed," said a woman who answered the phone at the city administration but declined to give her name.
"That kind of light doesn’t happen in life, only at the end of the world," Vlada Palagina, a Chelyabinsk schoolteacher, told the LifeNews website.
Officials moved quickly to calm residents, saying there was no threat to human life from the rock fragments. Most of the meteorite burned up before pieces hit the ground outside Chelyabinsk, scientists said.
President Vladimir Putin ordered the emergency situations minister to provide help for those affected.
"There’s no major destruction," Chelyabinsk regional Governor Mikhail Yuyevich wrote on his blog. "The main task now is to maintain heat in the apartments and offices where the glass was smashed."
"There have been reports of one or two people being injured in the past. This is entirely unprecedented," said Keith Smith, an astronomer at Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society.
Dr. Smith stressed that there was no connection between the meteor event in Russia and the swimming-pool-sized asteroid that is expected to harmlessly pass about 28,000 kilometers from earth on Friday.
Planetary scientist Samuel Kounaves at Tufts University in Boston also said there likely was no connection between the meteor strike in Russia and the record close approach Friday of asteroid 2012 DA14, a 130,000-ton rock which was expected to narrowly miss the planet by about 17,200 miles. “It probably had nothing to do with the meteorite that hit Russia,” he said.
Asteroids are fairly small pieces of rock that go around the sun. A meteoroid is an even smaller piece of debris or particle that goes around the sun. A meteorite, on the other hand, is a meteoroid that survives its atmosphere plunge and lands upon the earth’s surface.
Dozens of fragments of the meteorite hit the ground, officials said, and search teams set out looking for remains. Local police described how one piece smashed into the ground near Lake Chebarkul, throwing up a column of ice, water and steam and creating an eight-meter crater.
The meteorite was several meters in diameter and weighed around 10 metric tons, Russia’s Academy of Sciences said in a statement. “The object entered the atmosphere at a speed of 15-20 kilometers per second, disintegrated at a height of 30-50 kilometers. The movement of fragments at large speed caused a powerful emission of light and a strong shock wave,” the academy said.
It is only every 2,000 years or so that a meteoroid the size of a football field descends to earth and causes significant damage, according to NASA. Giant asteroids that crash to earth—such as the one that most likely extinguished the dinosaurs—tend to occur on the scale of millions of years.
Scientists will likely rush to the site in Russia where the meteoroid was observed. Astronomer Dr. Smith said there has probably been only one case—in Sudan in 2007—where researchers were able to follow the track of a meteor as it came down and recover pieces of it on the ground.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin called for leading world powers to create an early-warning system, and consider technology to shoot down meteorites. Roskosmos, Russia’s space agency, said it was impossible to track objects falling as fast as the meteorite.