Chelyabinsk meteor: 2013 Russian region asteroid event explained, how many people died - could it happen again?

The shockwave caused thousands of injuries as glass windows were blown in across the region

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It’s been 10 years since the Chelyabinsk asteroid exploded over an area of Russia, lighting up the dawn sky and causing injuries in the hundreds.

The anniversary comes just days after a similar space rock entered the Earth’s atmosphere and was seen lighting up the sky above the English Channel in the early hours of Monday (13 February) morning. That asteroid was about one metre in size - just 5% the size of the Chelyabinsk rock - and caused no damage.

So what exactly happened in Russia 10 years ago, and how likely is it that a similar event could occur in the near future? Here is everything you need to know about it.

What happened?

On 15 February 2013, an asteroid about 20 metres (66ft) in size suddenly appeared and exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, damaging thousands of buildings and causing widespread injuries. The object had approached Earth undetected before its atmospheric entry.

It exploded in an “airburst” at a height of about 18.5 miles, generating a flash that was briefly brighter than the Sun (visible as far as 60 miles away) and producing a hot cloud of dust, gas and many surviving small fragmentary meteorites. Some eyewitnesses also said they felt intense heat from the fireball.

About 1,500 people were injured seriously enough to seek medical treatment, and all of the injuries were due to indirect effects rather than the meteor itself, mainly from broken glass from windows that were blown in when the shock wave arrived, minutes after the bright flash.

A meteorite trail is seen above a residential apartment block in the city of Chelyabinsk (Photo: -/74.RU/AFP via Getty Images)A meteorite trail is seen above a residential apartment block in the city of Chelyabinsk (Photo: -/74.RU/AFP via Getty Images)
A meteorite trail is seen above a residential apartment block in the city of Chelyabinsk (Photo: -/74.RU/AFP via Getty Images)

The intense light from the meteor also produced injuries, resulting in more than 180 cases of eye pain, and 20 people reported ultraviolet burns similar to sunburn, possibly intensified by the presence of snow on the ground.

It is the largest known natural object to have entered Earth’s atmosphere since the Tunguska event, which destroyed a wide, remote, forested, and very sparsely populated area of Siberia in 1908. The Chelyabinsk meteor is also the only meteor confirmed to have resulted in many injuries. No deaths were reported.

How likely is another similar event?

It is estimated that the frequency of airburst explosions from objects 20 metres across is about once in every 60 years, and in the last 120 years, there have been two other similar events - the 1908 Tunguska event, and another explosion off the coast of the Prince Edward Islands in the Indian Ocean in 1963, though the latter may not have been a meteor.

Both of those occurred over unpopulated areas, and so caused relatively minimal danger to life (though eyewitness reports suggest that at least three people may have died in Tunguska). Had the larger Tunguska event occurred over a highly populous district, it would have been devastating.

Can we predict such events?

In 2018, the US government said it was stepping up efforts to protect the planet from incoming asteroids that could wipe out entire regions or even continents, adding that, while scientists know of no asteroids or comets heading our way, one could sneak up on us.

There is no quick solution if a space rock is suddenly days, weeks or even months from striking, but such short notice would give the world time to evacuate the area it might hit. Ground telescopes are good at picking up asteroids zooming into the inner solar system and approaching from the night side of Earth.

What is difficult to detect are rocks that have already zipped past the sun and are heading out of the solar system, approaching from the day side. This was the case with the Chelyabinsk meteor, and the reason it was able to approach Earth undetected before its atmospheric entry.

The recent English Channel meteor marked just the seventh time an asteroid impact has been predicted in advance. The last asteroid predicted to enter into the Earth’s atmosphere in advance was in November 2022, and was seen in the sky above Ontario, Canada. The European Space Agency tweeted that it was “a sign of the rapid advancements in global asteroid detection capabilities!”