MONTREAL – The meteor that streaked across the sky above the Ural Mountains in Russia on Friday and caused several hundred injuries caught Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield off guard.
Hadfield, who is aboard the International Space Station on a five-month visit, said he missed the big event from his vantage point in outer space.
“We weren’t in a position to see that meteorite do all that damage in Russia,” he told University of Waterloo students during a video link-up Friday.
The space rock, estimated to weigh about 10 tonnes, caused sharp explosions as it streaked across the sky. There were reports that more than 1,000 people were injured, mostly due to broken glass.
Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen, who joined students for the chat with Hadfield, tried to offer his own assurances.
“This isn’t new news,” the rookie astronaut said. “The Earth is struck by objects all the time. In fact about 100 tonnes of debris hits our planet every day (and) most of it doesn’t pose a threat to us.”
Phil Langill, an astronomer and University of Calgary physics professor, said the meteor “snuck in under the radar.”
He added that to be able to spot such a meteor beforehand, “you would have to be just really lucky.”
“You have to have the right equipment looking in the right direction, at the right time, with the sun in the right angle, no clouds,” Langill said in an interview.
He said space rocks like meteors are usually visible when they reflect sunlight, but a lot of them are dark.
The Russian Academy of Sciences said the meteor was going at at least 54,000 kilometres an hour when it entered the Earth’s atmosphere. It shattered between about 30 and 50 kilometres above the ground.
Langill also pointed out that, luckily, the Russian meteor made a long streak across the atmosphere and did not come straight down toward the Earth.
“The more air that it passes through, the more it’ll burn up in the air and the less of it will hit the ground, said Langill, who is also director of the Calgary-area Rothney Astrophysical Observatory.
He added it could have been worse had the meteor slammed into the ground.
“It’s hard to put a hard number on these things, but certainly a crater the size of a city block probably would have resulted,” Langill said, adding he wants to analyze the data.
One Canadian who experienced the meteor crash up close was Saskatoon native Michael Garnett.
The walls of Garnett’s apartment in Chelyabinsk — the biggest city affected — shook wildly as he heard glass shattering and car alarms going off outside.
“My light fixtures were swaying back and forth,” said Garnett, who plays in the professional Kontinental Hockey League for the Traktor Chelyabinsk.
”At that point I was just terrified.”
When he was able to collect himself, the 30-year-old looked out his window and saw a trace of the meteor that had torn through the sky moments earlier.
“It was like a bomb went off. You drive down the street and you look up at the apartments, and a lot of these buildings are from the Soviet era, and there’s just windows blown out. It’s just crazy.”
The meteor is not to be confused with an asteroid about the half the size of a football field that safely brushed past the Earth on Friday.
The asteroid was projected to come within of 27,600 kilometres of the planet — close enough to pass inside the ring of satellites that circle the Earth.
The European Space Agency, in a post on its Twitter account, said its experts had determined there was no connection between the meteor and the asteroid.
Astronomers say they were coming in different directions.