A falling meteor exploded in Russia’s Urals region last Friday, January 15, sending a shockwave that shattered glasses, broke windows, and shook buildings. The resulting blast affected Chelyabinsk City which injured almost a thousand individuals, including over 200 children, and damaged thousands of buildings. The blast prompted the suspension of classes and many offices. The damage to property caused by the explosion is estimated to be above 1 billion Russian Rubles or $33 Million.The event also highlighted how vulnerable Earth is from threats from outer space. But are they different from the natural disasters mankind already faces?
US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reported that the meteor entered the atmosphere over Alaska then streaked and disintegrated 6,500 kilometers towards the skies over Chelyabinsk, Russia. It was also reported that the meteor is not related to the asteroid 2012 DA14 that safely passed by Earth the next day.
Here are some facts about the Chelyabinsk Meteor:
- Diameter: ~17 meters
- Mass: ~10,000 tons
- Distance traveled: 6,500 kilometers
- Travel time: 32.5 seconds
- Speed: 200 kilometers per second
- Energy: 500 kilotons
It was likewise reported that over 20,000 emergency personnel were mobilized to respond to the meteor strike. The following day, the city was back to normal.
Can Falling Meteors be Intercepted?
Rumors circulated that Russian Air Defense intercepted and blasted the meteor. This was later disclaimed by the Russian Government.
Military defense systems can only detect and intercept missiles fired from the Earth’s surface. For a successful intercept, detection is the most vital. Missile defense systems rely on satellites looking down on Earth to detect missile launches. Military satellites cannot detect any incoming meteor because they look down towards Earth and not towards space. Intercept options are limited to current military hardware of missiles.
Near-Earth objects like meteors and asteroids can only be detected by space telescopes. At present, there is no plausible means of early detection and interception of a falling meteor. It is also very difficult to intercept a meteor traveling 200 kilometers per second.
Death from Above: Threats from Outer Space
But falling meteors are not the only threats that can affect mankind. Effects range from simple signal disturbances to even end-of-the-world scenarios. Some threats are as follows:
Solar Storms are part of the nature of the sun. Solar storms emit electromagnetic waves in large quantities beyond normal. Big solar storms can knock out communication satellites and power grids. Crash in communication and power infrastructure will crash economies and interrupt power in a global scale.
Asteroid and Comet Impacts can be considered as extinction level events. Such extraterrestrial bodies are larger than meteors and spans kilometers in diameter. Its impact on Earth is millions worth of nuclear bombs and can kill virtually all life on earth. Dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid impact millions of years ago. Mankind also faces extinction if a similar event happens.
There are other natural threats from outer space, and theories abound on what Earth and mankind faces from space.
Technology at present is not capable of protecting mankind from the dangers from outer space. Space protection systems are still in scientists’ drawing boards.
As far as mankind is concerned, Earth is part of a larger environment. Like the way a locality is at risk of natural disasters like storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcano eruptions, Earth is always at the mercy of the elements of a larger environment. Earth, like the surface of the moon and any other planet, will always be a target of meteorites, asteroids, and other dangerous space phenomena.
What can be learned from the Chelyabinsk incident is that it is very possible for a meteor to strike a city. There may be a low chance but it is very possible as hundreds or even thousands of meteors of various sizes enter the Earth’s atmosphere every year.
So what will Happen if a Meteor Strikes Metro Manila?
Like any other disaster, damage to property and injuries are expected when a meteor strikes a major city. Metro Manila, being a heavily urbanized area, can expect widespread destruction, injuries, and panic. It would also be a challenge to emergency services and authorities to address the complicated effects of a meteor strike in the city.
On another note, even if there is no immediate threat, the spread of hoax text messages is always present and can cause panic in the populace. Take for example the dam hoaxes during typhoons Ondoy and Helen and the nuclear radiation hoax during the 2011 tsunami in Japan. The common Filipinos is not that knowledgeable about outer space and is very susceptible to hoaxes and pranks on meteor showers and related events.
Bottomline: Emergency Preparedness
As far as the current state of space science and technology, there is no sure way to protect cities nor the general population from falling meteors but a sturdy roof and blast-proof windows. If a doomsday scenario faces mankind, there is nothing much that can be done, but leave the matter to countries with advanced military and space technology and hope for the best.
There is nothing new. Meteors fall into our planet every day. The only difference between a meteor strike and the typical hazards we face is that it can happen randomly without any warning and damage can happen only in a matter of seconds.
A meteor strike in Metro Manila is less likely to occur compared to a major earthquake. It might be even worse compared to heavy flooding which Metro Manila experiences almost several times a year. The point is, a meteor strike is just like any other natural and manmade disaster we face.
Therefore, the key to surviving any disaster is preparedness in both personal and government levels. This includes awareness to protect the public from the dangers of panic, confusion, and hoaxes as well as the mobilization of all emergency resources and manpower for disaster response. If we are able to execute such feat, any disaster can be surpassed. The ability to survive and respond to the worst disasters imaginable should be the benchmark. That is how to survive a meteor strike.