In February 2013 a meteor streaked across the Russian sky and burst in midair near Chelyabinsk. A recent Physics Today article summarizes what scientists have pieced together about the meteor, from its origins to its demise. The whole article is well worth reading. Here’s a peek:
The Chelyabinsk asteroid first felt the presence of Earth’s atmosphere when it was thousands of kilometers above the Pacific Ocean. For the next dozen minutes, the 10 000-ton rock fell swiftly, silently, and unseen, passing at a shallow angle through the rarefied exosphere where the molecular mean free path is much greater than the 20-m diameter of the rock. Collisions with molecules did nothing to slow the gravitational acceleration as it descended over China and Kazakhstan. When it crossed over the border into Russia at 3:20:20 UT and was 100 km above the ground, 99.99997% of the atmosphere was still beneath it.
Because the asteroid was moving much faster than air molecules could get out of its way, the molecules began to pile up into a compressed layer of high-temperature plasma pushing a shock wave forward. Atmospheric density increases exponentially with depth, so as the asteroid plunged, the plasma layer thickened and its optical opacity rapidly increased. About one second later, at 95 km above the surface, it became bright enough to be seen from the ground. That was the first warning that something big was about to happen. #
How often are scientific articles that gripping?! Kring and Boslough provide some excellent descriptions of the aerodynamics of the meteor and its airburst. Be sure to check it out. (Photo credit: M. Ahmetvaleev; paper credit: D. Kring and M. Boslough; via io9)