Last year about this time, the faces of politicians everywhere were turned to the skies, fearfully wondering “Will we be next?” A natural response to the spectacular (no, it’s not possible to avoid the adjective, I’ve tried) bolide that exploded above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, the question was welcomed by Near Earth Object (NEO) experts the world round, thankful that someone was finally paying attention to this very real threat – and that no one had to actually die to make it happen.
The furor of activity has now completely subsided and sadly, we appear no closer to being able to anticipate the next close call. Just this week, space analyst Leonard David reported that bureaucracy was getting in the way of military-civilian collaboration on fireball tracking in the United States. Oddly enough, the same week produced flashy evidence that there are more where that came from in the form of a fireball captured on several dashcams in Murmansk, Russia.
Russia is a big country and the frequent use of dashcams by its denizens makes it not terribly surprising that they should be particularly good at catching fireballs midflight. This is also the time period of the Lyrid meteor shower, when shooting stars are expected to fill the skies. Still, if you saw one of these over your house, you might be somewhat concerned. Chelyabinsk, too, fell when sky watchers were expecting a different space rock.
Before Chelyabinsk, the most recent and documented cautionary tale of meteors was the Tunguska event that flattened a Siberian forest. The event was legendary but often dismissed as uncommon. In the new age of ever present recording equipment – such as dashcams and cell phones, not to mention more scientific paraphernalia such as low frequency detectors originally used to monitor nuclear explosions – it now seems clear that such meteors are the rule rather than the exception. Unlike the short and so far harmless history of space debris reentry events, meteorites and bolides can and have killed.
It’s not all bad news. Of some note is the convening of the first meeting of the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), a step that has been bruited about in United Nations Office Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOUS) circles for years. There is movement, but it is of the slow, painstaking variety, behind the scenes and out of the headlines.
The shock of 1200 people sustaining injuries due to a rock falling out of the sky has died down, but the rocks are still falling. Sooner or later, they are going to hurt.
Feature image: The Chelyabinsk meteor, captured by photographer Marat Ahmetvaleev who happened to be looking in the right direction at the time ©Marat Ahmetvaleev http://marateaman.livejournal.com/