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Chelyabinsk meteorite is 'as old as the solar system', say Russian scientists

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07 October 2013


'The speed of a meteorite's vertical drift is typical of surface nuclear explosions, which makes appropriate the comparison with a nuclear explosion'. Picture: Marat Akhmetaleyev

Scientists conclude that the asteroid explosion over the Ural Mountains in the early morning of  15 February - which injured 1,500 people - had the force of a nuclear bomb. They have also dated the meteorite to be as old as time itself. 

'An analysis of Chelyabinsk meteorite fragments shows that its age practically coincides with that of the solar system, 4.56 billion years,' said Mikhail Marov, deputy head of the planetary research and space chemistry department of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Geo-Chemistry and Analytical Chemistry. 'In fact, we possess a rock from the time of genesis'.

The explosion was recorded in dramatic photographs by observers, a fact which has aided scientists in understanding the phenomenon. Marov also confirmed earlier speculation that the rock may have had an earlier collision some 290 million years ago as it sped around the universe. 

'This is just a theory, we cannot say for certain yet that this event has actually taken place,' he said. 

It is indicated by isotope tests and the structure of meteorite fragments. The initial mass of the Chelyabinsk Meteorite was around 10,000 metric tonnes at an altitude of 1,000 kilometres. The mass was reduced to about one tonne with an enormous explosion at an altitude of 23 km.

Chebarkul meteorite

Chebarkul meteorite

'An analysis of Chelyabinsk meteorite fragments shows that its age practically coincides with that of the solar system, 4.56 billion years. Pictures: Marat Akhmetaleyev

The scientists also believe that the meteorite - the largest chunk of which landed in Lake Chebarkul - 'is a fragment of a larger body, which continues its existence'. Estimates have been made as to the scale of the phenomenon which is seen as a smaller version of the Tungunska Event of 30 June 1908 over the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia. It flattened 2,000 square kilometres of forest.  

'Actually, the speed of a meteorite's vertical drift is typical of surface nuclear explosions, which makes appropriate the comparison with a nuclear explosion,' said Marov, referring to the 2013 explosion.

Some 1,000 cubic meters of gas were emitted, he indicated. The atmosphere was heated by dozens of degrees as a result.  

'That was a truly immense event', stressed Marov. Scientists have collected over 100 kilograms of fragments from the meteorite, said Yuri Zaitsev, spokesman for the Russian Academy of Sciences Space Research Institute.

'Several institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences organised expeditions immediately after the event in order to collect meteorite samples and to study the drop zone. The total weight of collected meteorite fragments exceeds 100 kilograms, and the heaviest piece weighs 3.4 kilograms.'

Laboratory tests identified the Chelyabinsk meteorite as a LL5 chondrite. Only 2% of chondrite meteorites, which fall on the Earth, belong to this class, and the Chelyabinsk event is the largest of them, he said. A salvage operation is still underway to retrieve the largest lump of space rock from silt at the bottom of the lake. Some 10,000 asteroids with a diameter larger than 1km may be cruising the solar system, and 'approximately 90% of them have been discovered, said Marov. 

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