A space rock a few metres across exploded in Earth's atmosphere above the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia today at about 03:15 GMT. The numerous injuries and significant damage remind us that what happens in space can affect us all.
While precise information on the size, mass and composition of the object are yet to be confirmed, videos show a fireball and explosion consistent with an asteroid up to a few metres in size exploding in the atmosphere, possibly several to ten kilometres above the surface.
In this type of event, if the explosion altitude is less than 10 km or so, the resulting shockwave can cause damage on the ground, such as shattering windows. Debris from the object may be found later.
"Current information, which is not yet complete nor confirmed, points to a small asteroid," said Detlef Koschny, Head of Near-Earth Object activity at ESA's Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme office. "There is no way it c ould have been predicted with the technical means available today. What can be said with near certainty is that this object has no connection with asteroid 2012 DA14." Asteroid 2012 DA14 made a close flyby of Earth at 19:27 GMT (20:27 CET) today. Finding objects that pass close to our planet and are large enough to do damage if they enter our atmosphere is a major goal of ESA's SSA programme.
In addition to conducting its own sky searches using ESA's Optical Ground Station in Tenerife, Spain, SSA is partnering with existing European and international asteroid survey activities.
Continuous efforts to identify near-Earth objects
It also sponsors astronomer groups in Europe, supporting surveys carried out with their own equipment or allocating observation time on its Tenerife telescope. The office also provides access to orbit predictions, close flyby details and related data via its technical website at http://neo.ssa.esa.int "Today's event is a strong reminder of why we need continuous efforts to survey and identify near-Earth objects," said Thomas Reiter, ESA's Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations. "Our SSA programme is developing a system of automated optical telescopes that can detect asteroids and other objects in solar orbits."
Today's event is a strong reminder of why we need continuous efforts to survey and identify near-Earth objects.
In cooperation with survey efforts worldwide, ESA's goal is to spot near-Earth objects larger than 40 m at least three weeks before closest approach to our planet.
To achieve this, ESA, European industry and partner agencies are developing a system of automated 1 m-diameter telescopes capable of imaging the complete sky in one night.
In addition to Russian media, who reported immediately, all media worldwide have published images of notable damage around Chelyabinsk, and reports also mention numerous casualties. "Our most sincere sympathies are with those suffering injury and property loss due to this event in Russia," added Thomas Reiter.