On a seemingly normal morning in February 2013, Chelyabinsk, Russia, became the epicenter of an extraordinary astronomical event. A meteor, the size of a moving truck, appeared in the sky, obscuring the sun for a brief moment. and causing an explosion of energy that surpassed the Hiroshima bomb by 30 times.
This event, fortunately without fatalities, broke windows throughout the city and injured more than 1,600 people. The meteor, which became known as the Chelyabinsk meteor, It is considered the largest natural space object to penetrate our atmosphere in more than a century.
The invisible threat from above
The Chelyabinsk meteor raised an alert in the scientific community about possible asteroids that could be hidden in our Solar System. Source: Getty Images
After what happened in Russia, space agencies intensified their efforts to map the cosmos, seeking to identify near-Earth objects (NEOs). The European Space Agency (ESA) estimates that objects the size of the Chelyabinsk meteor breach the atmosphere every half century or so.
Although we have identified more than 33,000 NEOs, none currently pose a threat to the next century. However, the real danger lies in the unknown – the countless asteroids on hidden trajectories, capable of destroying the entire city or even mass extinction.
Amy Mainzer, professor of planetary sciences and principal investigator for NASA’s asteroid-hunting missions, emphasized the importance of consciousness: “The most problematic object is the one you don’t know about.” The identification of these objects allows not only the calculation of risk, but also the development of contingency plansincluding diversion or evacuation, to avoid mass casualties.
Infographic explaining the real danger of asteroids.Source: ESA
The search for detection
Finding asteroids close to the Sun is challenging. Ground-based telescopes have limitations due to solar glare and the brief twilight windows available for observation. Space telescopes perform better because they can use infrared imaging to detect the heat of asteroids, making them visible even in the dark.
NASA’s NEO Surveyor and ESA’s NEOMIR will be launched within a decade, equipped with infrared imaging and designed to search for asteroids in the vicinity of the Sun. These missions promise to improve our planetary defense, potentially detecting even small objects like the Chelyabinsk meteor well before impact.
NASA currently knows more than 33,000 NEOs, but the region around the Sun is still a great mystery. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech
While we wait, astronomers use terrestrial methods, striving to uncover the Sun’s hidden dangers. Despite the challenges, optimism remains high as each new discovery adds a piece to the puzzle of our solar system’s complex dynamics. Mainzer encourages vigilance and further exploration: “Go look. Do better research and you can greatly reduce uncertainty.”
The Chelyabinsk incident serves as a reminder of our place in the cosmos: a world not isolated from the wider universe, but deeply interconnected and occasionally at the mercy of its wandering giants.
Stay up to date with the latest astronomy discoveries here at TecMundo. If you wish, take the opportunity to also see about the NASA study regarding the metallic nature of the asteroid Psyche.