Russian meteor, asteroids and the Tunguska event

Feb. 15, 2013 | 1:15 p.m.

The sudden appearance of a meteor, streaking across the skies above the Russian city of Chelyabinsky on Friday would be a brilliant spectacle were its effects not so tragic. Bringing with it a flurry of space debris, the blast from the meteor injured more than 500 people, with 112 – 80 of them children – requiring hospital care.

The incredible photos that have emerged from the event offer just a hint of the dangerous spectacle on display in the Russian skies.

Such an event can’t help but recall the memory of the country’s other famous meteoric calamity – the Tunguska event – an incident that has sparked numerous pop culture references that will be recognizable to U.S. audiences.  The mystery and spectacle surrounding Tunguska has been portrayed as the work of Vulcans preventing a greater disaster in a Star Trek novel, incorrectly mentioned by Dan Aykroyd in “Ghostbusters” as having taken place in 1909 and serving as a crucial entry point for “The X-Files’” so-called extraterrestrial “black oil.”

Though not definitively proven, the broad consensus is that the 1908 explosion close to the Podkammennaya Tunguska River was caused by the explosive after-effects of a meteor entering the Earth’s atmosphere, eventually crashing into Russian soil.

PHOTOS: Meteor streaks over Russia

If the scene from Friday’s meteor explosion is any indication, the Tunguska event was an unprecedented display.

“When I saw some white narrow cloud moving outside the window I ran up to it and saw a huge blinding flash. It was like the way I would imagine a nuclear bomb. At first, there was no sound at all as if I suddenly went deaf,” Nadezhda Golovko, deputy head of Chelyabinsk Secondary School No. 130 told The Times.

Luckily centered in a remote area of the country, the Tunguska event, which caused widespread seismic activity, atmospheric fluctuations and brightly lighted night skies in neighboring regions, was surrounded by mystery until a series of expeditions led by scientist Leonid Kulik starting in 1927. Even that long after the event itself, the impact was startling – with the iconic 2,150-square-kilometer Forest of Tunguska, where barely any trees were left standing, serving as stark evidence of the explosive power on display in 1908.

Though it’s impossible to exactly measure the strength of the explosion at the heart of the event, estimates range from 3 to 20 megatons worth of TNT. For a frame of reference, the most powerful nuclear bomb ever tested, Tsar Bomba, yielded 57 megatons, and Little Boy, the bomb used on Hiroshima, yielded a smaller 16 kilotons.

With all of that in mind, the fact that asteroid DA14, while being the biggest asteroid on record to travel so close to Earth, passed us by just a short time ago comes as a breath of fresh air.

PHOTOS: Incredible images from space

– Morgan Little

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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