A team of Colombian astronomers have painstakingly reconstructed the path of the meteor that captured the world’s attention earlier this month after smashing into the Russian countryside, leaving hundreds of people injured.
The results of the study, announced Wednesday, reveal the 45-foot-wide meteor was destined to smash into Earth. Using evidence gathered by one camera at the Revolution Square in the city of Chelyabinsk and other videos recorded by witnesses in the close city of Korkino, the team was able to calculate the trajectory of the body in the atmosphere, which allowed them to reconstruct its orbit around the sun.
Relying on the collection of footage, the team was able to use the Naval Observatory Vector Astrometry Software (NOVAS) in order to determine the location, speed, and altitude of the fireball as it slammed into Earth’s atmosphere. The software system was able to add in various factors of influence, including the gravitational tug from the moon and that of the other eight planets. The resulting equation allowed the astronomers to posit that the Russian meteor was once an Apollo-class asteroid. Apollo-class asteroids are part of a well known collection of near-Earth objects that often result in close flybys of Earth. According to NASA, 5,200 Apollo-class asteroids are currently known, the largest being 1866 Sisyphus — a 10 kilometer-wide monster that was discovered in 1972.
“According to our estimations, the Chelyabinski meteor started to brighten up when it was between 32 and 47 km up in the atmosphere … The velocity of the body predicted by our analysis was between 13 and 19 km/s (relative to the Earth) which encloses the preferred figure of 18 km/s assumed by other researchers,” researchers wrote in the published piece.
The study, led by Jorge Zuluaga and Ignacio Ferrin of the University of Antioquia in Medellin, is the first attempt to discover the meteor’s origin. A number of astronomers, including those at NASA, have offered their calculations of the meteor’s explosive power when it hit Earth’s atmosphere. Last Friday, U.S. space agency scientists estimated the meteor was space rock about 50 feet (15 meters) and unleashed a blast equivalent of a 300-kiloton explosion. The energy estimate was later increased to 470 kilotons. NASA scientists also estimated that the hunk of space rock weighed upwards of 10,000 tons, up from the previous estimate of 4,000 tons.
Meanwhile, the meteor’s explosion over Russia continues to drive the conversation over how best to prepare for future collisions. Lindley Johnson, the executive for the Near Earth Object Observation Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, says the impact will exert pressure on lawmakers to fund programs aimed at identifying objects that have the ability to devastate local regions in the event of an impact.
According to revised figures, the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded over Russia at an altitude of 12 miles (20 kilometers). The main explosion took place over the city of Chelyabinsk, which houses 1.1 million Russians in a emote region of the Urals Mountains. The resulting shock wave blew out windows, caused an estimated $33 million in property damage, and injured more than 1,200 people, according to local reports.