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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

What Exploded Over Russia This Time?

By Phil Plait

Please see update below; it appears this was a ground blast and not a meteor.

On Nov. 14, 2014, something exploded over the skies of the Sverdlovsk region of Russia, about 1,500 kilometers east of Moscow. I’m not sure what it was, but the videos coming out are pretty dramatic:

As we learned from Chelyabinsk in 2013, Russian cars commonly have dashboard cameras, so I’m hoping more footage will surface soon. A couple of teenagers managed to catch it on a phone camera:

It’s very cloudy, but the light can be seen through them. The first obvious guess is that this was a bolide, a fireball caused by a chunk of debris entering our atmosphere from space at high speed. These happen pretty often.

The color is odd; the reddish glow, if accurately portrayed in these videos, isn’t something I generally see in bolide videos and photos (or from the few I have seen with my own eye). They tend to be green or blue, or just white. Not always, but just in general. Of course, the clouds may be affecting the color, too.

Also, it’s really hard to tell, but it doesn’t look like the light is moving, as you might expect from a meteor. The videos are both shaky, so it’s not easy to measure that. The movement looks minimal to me, though. That could be geometry: If the meteor is moving across your line of sight then there is a lot of motion, but if it’s headed more or less  toward or away from you as it moves through the air, sideways motion will be low. I’d expect that the two videos would show different geometries, but again they’re so shaky it’s hard to tell.

Update, Nov. 19, 2014, at 14:50 UTC: Another video has surfaced that shows what looks to be an intense burst of light on the ground. Pay attention about 20 seconds in:

It's brief, but it corresponds to the same flash in the sky. This also can apparently be seen in a video at LiveLeak. It looks like this was an explosion on the ground, reflected in the clouds (see the still frame from the video below). That would explain everything seen in the videos above, including lack of apparent motion and the red coloring. I don't know what the explosion or fire was, but I'm pretty satisfied this was some sort of ground blast, and NOT a meteoric event. My thanks to commenter beanfeast and Sasa Andonov for the tips.

There are some preliminary flashes in the teenagers’ video a few seconds before the big one, and that’s consistent with a meteoroid breaking up as it comes in. As a big rock rams through the air at many times the speed of sound, the pressure breaks the rock up into smaller pieces, creating flashes as the energy of motion is converted into light and heat. There can then be a much larger flash as the smaller rocks all disintegrate rapidly.

If this wasn’t a bolide, what was it? Beats me. It’s a bit odd to think that a biggish rock from interplanetary space is the most mundane and prosaic explanation, but in this case it is! However, I won’t make up my mind until more evidence is in.

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to NASANeoCAM on Twitter.

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