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Bus-size meteor explodes above Russia with force 20 times stronger than Hiroshima bomb

| Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, 10:03 p.m.
A circular hole in the ice of Chebarkul Lake where a meteor reportedly struck the lake near Chelyabinsk, about 930 miles east of Moscow, on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. AP
In this photo taken with a mobile phone camera, a meteor contrail is seen in Chelyabinsk region on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. A meteor streaked across the sky of Russia's Ural Mountains on Friday morning, causing sharp explosions and reportedly injuring around 1,100 people. AP
In this photo provided by Chelyabinsk.ru a meteor contrail is seen over Chelyabinsk on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. AP
AFP/Getty Images
Workers repair a power line near the wall of a zinc plant that was damaged by a shock wave from a meteor in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk, on February 15, 2013. Getty Images

MOSCOW — With a blinding flash and a booming shock wave, a meteor blazed across the western Siberian sky on Friday and exploded with the force of 20 atomic bombs, injuring more than 1,000 people as it blasted out windows and spread panic in a city of 1 million.

While NASA estimated the meteor was only about the size of a bus and weighed an estimated 7,000 tons, the fireball it produced was dramatic. Video shot by startled residents of the city of Chelyabinsk showed its streaming contrails as it arced toward the horizon just after sunrise, looking like something from a world-ending science fiction movie.

The largest recorded meteor strike in more than a century occurred hours before a 150-foot asteroid passed within about 17,000 miles of Earth. The European Space Agency said its experts had determined there was no connection between the asteroid and the Russian meteor — just cosmic coincidence.

The meteor above western Siberia entered the Earth's atmosphere about 9:20 a.m. local time at a hypersonic speed of about 40,000 mph, according to NASA, and exploded about 12 to 15 miles high, releasing 300 to 500 kilotons of energy and a trail 300 miles long.

“There was panic. People had no idea what was happening,” said Sergey Hametov of Chelyabinsk, about 930 miles east of Moscow in the Ural Mountains.

“We saw a big burst of light, then went outside to see what it was, and we heard a really loud, thundering sound,” Hametov said.

The shock wave blew in more than 1 million square feet of glass, according to city officials, who said 3,000 buildings in Chelyabinsk were damaged. At a zinc factory, part of the roof collapsed.

The Interior Ministry said about 1,100 people sought medical care after the shock wave and 48 were hospitalized. Most of the injuries were caused by flying glass, officials said.

Scientists estimated the meteor unleashed a force 20 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, although the space rock exploded at a much higher altitude. Amy Mainzer, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the atmosphere acted as a shield.

The shock wave may have shattered windows, but “the atmosphere absorbed the vast majority of that energy,” she said.

There was no immediate word on any deaths or anyone struck by space fragments.

As for the 150-foot space rock that safely hurtled past Earth at 2:25 p.m., it was dubbed Asteroid 2012 DA14 and was discovered a year ago. It came closer than many communication and weather satellites that orbit 22,300 miles up.

The asteroid was invisible to astronomers in the United States at the time of its closest approach on the opposite of the world. But in Australia, astronomers used binoculars and telescopes to watch the point of light speed across the clear night sky.

Jim Green, NASA's director of planetary science, called the back-to-back celestial events an amazing display.

“This is indeed very rare, and it is historic,” Green said on NASA TV. “These fireballs happen about once a day or so, but we just don't see them because many of them fall over the ocean or in remote areas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin summoned the nation's emergencies minister and ordered immediate repairs.

“We need to think how to help the people and do it immediately,” he said.

Some meteorite fragments fell in a reservoir outside the town of Chebarkul, the regional Interior Ministry office said. The crash left a 26-foot crater in the ice.

Lessons had just started at Chelyabinsk schools when the meteor exploded, and officials said 258 children were among those injured. Amateur video showed a teacher speaking to her class as a powerful shock wave hit the room.

Yekaterina Melikhova, a high school student whose nose was bloody and whose upper lip was covered with a bandage, said she was in her geography class when a bright light flashed outside.

“After the flash, nothing happened for about three minutes. Then we rushed outdoors. ... The door was made of glass. A shock wave made it hit us,” she said.

Russian television ran video of athletes at a city sports arena who were showered by shards of glass from huge windows. Some of them were still bleeding.

Other videos showed a long shard of glass slamming into the floor close to a factory worker and huge doors blown away by the shock wave.

Meteors typically cause sizable sonic booms when they enter the atmosphere because they are traveling so much faster than the speed of sound. Injuries on the scale reported on Friday, however, are extraordinarily rare.

“I went to see what that flash in the sky was about,” recalled resident Marat Lobkovsky. “And then the window glass shattered, bouncing back on me. My beard was cut open, but not deep. They patched me up. It's OK now.”

Meteoroids are small pieces of space debris — usually parts of comets or asteroids — that are on a collision course with the Earth. They become meteors when they enter the Earth's atmosphere. Most meteors burn up in the atmosphere, but if they survive the frictional heating and strike the surface of the Earth, they are called meteorites.

NASA said the Russian fireball was the largest reported since 1908, when a meteor hit Tunguska, Siberia, and flattened an estimated 80 million trees. The Tunguska blast, attributed to a comet or asteroid fragment, is generally estimated to have been about 10 megatons.

Scientists believe that a far larger meteorite strike on what today is Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula may have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago. According to that theory, the impact would have thrown up vast amounts of dust that blanketed the sky for decades and altered the climate on Earth.

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