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Look Up: Meteorites Strike Earth Every Few Months

  • In this photo provided by Chelyabinsk.ru a meteorite contrail is seen over Chelyabinsk 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 100 people, including many hurt by broken glass. (AP Photo/Chelyabinsk.ru)

    In this photo provided by Chelyabinsk.ru a meteorite contrail is seen over Chelyabinsk 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 100 people, including many hurt by broken glass. (AP Photo/Chelyabinsk.ru)

  • FILE - In this July 30, 2007 file photo, William Watts Biggers arrives for the premiere of the "Underdog" movie in New York.  Biggers, the co-creator of the cartoon “Underdog,” the mild-mannered shoeshine boy who turned into a caped superhero to rescue his girlfriend, Sweet Polly Purebred, has died, he was 85.  Family friend Derek Tague says Biggers, who went by “Buck,” died unexpectedly at his Plymouth, Mass., home on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013. The native of Avondale Estates, Ga., worked for the New York City advertising firm DFS when he accepted an assignment from the agency's largest client, General Mills, to create television cartoons to promote its breakfast cereals. The most famous was “Underdog,” which debuted on NBC in 1964.  (AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams)

    FILE - In this July 30, 2007 file photo, William Watts Biggers arrives for the premiere of the "Underdog" movie in New York. Biggers, the co-creator of the cartoon “Underdog,” the mild-mannered shoeshine boy who turned into a caped superhero to rescue his girlfriend, Sweet Polly Purebred, has died, he was 85. Family friend Derek Tague says Biggers, who went by “Buck,” died unexpectedly at his Plymouth, Mass., home on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013. The native of Avondale Estates, Ga., worked for the New York City advertising firm DFS when he accepted an assignment from the agency's largest client, General Mills, to create television cartoons to promote its breakfast cereals. The most famous was “Underdog,” which debuted on NBC in 1964. (AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams)

  • FILE - In this 1953 file photo, trees lie strewn across the Siberian countryside 45 years after a meteorite struck the Earth near Tunguska, Russia. The 1908 explosion is generally estimated to have been about 10 megatons; it leveled some 80 million trees for miles near the impact site. The meteor that streaked across the Russian sky Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, is estimated to be about 10 tons. It exploded with the power of an atomic bomb over the Ural Mountains, about 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) west of Tunguska. (AP Photo, File)

    FILE - In this 1953 file photo, trees lie strewn across the Siberian countryside 45 years after a meteorite struck the Earth near Tunguska, Russia. The 1908 explosion is generally estimated to have been about 10 megatons; it leveled some 80 million trees for miles near the impact site. The meteor that streaked across the Russian sky Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, is estimated to be about 10 tons. It exploded with the power of an atomic bomb over the Ural Mountains, about 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) west of Tunguska. (AP Photo, File)

  • In this photo taken with a mobile phone camera, a meteorite 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 100 people, including many hurt by broken glass. (AP Photo/Sergey Hametov)

    In this photo taken with a mobile phone camera, a meteorite 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 100 people, including many hurt by broken glass. (AP Photo/Sergey Hametov)

  • In this photo taken with a mobile phone camera, a meteorite 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 100 people, including many hurt by broken glass. (AP Photo/Sergey Hametov)

    In this photo taken with a mobile phone camera, a meteorite 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 100 people, including many hurt by broken glass. (AP Photo/Sergey Hametov)

  • In this photo provided by Chelyabinsk.ru a meteorite contrail is seen over Chelyabinsk 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 100 people, including many hurt by broken glass. (AP Photo/Chelyabinsk.ru)
  • FILE - In this July 30, 2007 file photo, William Watts Biggers arrives for the premiere of the "Underdog" movie in New York.  Biggers, the co-creator of the cartoon “Underdog,” the mild-mannered shoeshine boy who turned into a caped superhero to rescue his girlfriend, Sweet Polly Purebred, has died, he was 85.  Family friend Derek Tague says Biggers, who went by “Buck,” died unexpectedly at his Plymouth, Mass., home on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013. The native of Avondale Estates, Ga., worked for the New York City advertising firm DFS when he accepted an assignment from the agency's largest client, General Mills, to create television cartoons to promote its breakfast cereals. The most famous was “Underdog,” which debuted on NBC in 1964.  (AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams)
  • FILE - In this 1953 file photo, trees lie strewn across the Siberian countryside 45 years after a meteorite struck the Earth near Tunguska, Russia. The 1908 explosion is generally estimated to have been about 10 megatons; it leveled some 80 million trees for miles near the impact site. The meteor that streaked across the Russian sky Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, is estimated to be about 10 tons. It exploded with the power of an atomic bomb over the Ural Mountains, about 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) west of Tunguska. (AP Photo, File)
  • In this photo taken with a mobile phone camera, a meteorite 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 100 people, including many hurt by broken glass. (AP Photo/Sergey Hametov)
  • In this photo taken with a mobile phone camera, a meteorite 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 100 people, including many hurt by broken glass. (AP Photo/Sergey Hametov)

Q. What’s the difference between a meteor and a meteorite?

A. Meteors are pieces of space rock, usually from larger comets or asteroids, which enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Many are burned up by friction and the heat of the atmosphere, but those that survive and strike the Earth are called meteorites. They often hit the ground at tremendous speed — up to 18,650 mile per hour — releasing a huge amount of energy, according to the European Space Agency.

Q: How often do meteorites hit Earth?

A: Experts say smaller strikes happen five to 10 times a year. Large meteors such as the one in Russia are rarer, but still occur about every five years, according to Addi Bischoff, a mineralogist at the University of Muenster in Germany. Most of them fall over uninhabited areas where they don’t injure humans.

Q: How big was yesterday’s meteor and why did it cause so many injuries?

A: Before it entered the atmosphere, the meteor was about 49 feet in diameter and had a mass of about 7,000 tons, NASA says.

The blast produced 20 times or more the explosive force of the U.S. bomb dropped over Hiroshima during World War II. But the bomb detonated just 2,000 feet above a densely populated city, while the Russian fireball exploded miles in the air, reducing the potential damage.

Q: When was the last event like this?

A: In 2008, astronomers spotted a meteor similar to the one in Russia heading toward Earth about 20 hours before it entered the atmosphere. It exploded over the vast African nation of Sudan, causing no known injuries. .

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.

Q: What can scientists learn from Friday’s strike?

A: Bischoff says scientists and treasure hunters are probably already racing to find pieces of the space rock. Some meteorites can be very valuable, selling for up to $670 per gram, depending on their origin and composition. Because meteors have remained largely unchanged for billions of years — unlike rocks on Earth affected by erosion and volcanic outbreaks — scientists will study the fragments to learn more about the early universe.

Alan Harris, a senior scientist at the German Aerospace Center in Berlin, says some meteorites are also believed to carry organic material and may have influenced the development of life on Earth.

Q: What would happen if a sizable meteorite hit a city?

A: A blast at low altitude or on the surface would result in many casualties and cause serious damage to buildings. The exact extent would depend on many factors, including the mass of the meteorite, its speed and composition, said Harris.

Scientists have been discussing for several years how to prepare for such an event — however remote. European Space Agency spokesman Bernhard von Weyhe says experts from Europe, the U.S. and Russia are working on way to spot potential threats sooner and avert them. But don’t expect a Hollywood-style mission to fly a nuclear bomb into space and blow up the asteroid, like the movie “Armageddon.”

“It’s a global challenge and we need to find a solution together,” he said. “But one thing’s for sure, the Bruce Willis ‘Armageddon’ method won’t work.”

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