A Screaming Comes Across the Sky

SCIENCE

Key details about a large meteor’s fiery passage over Chelyabinsk, Russia, were inadvertently captured by satellites originally tasked to study Earth’s weather, scientists say. These environmental satellites could help researchers study potentially dangerous near-Earth objects, or NEOs. (National Geographic News)

Use our resources to better understand meteors and weather satellites.

(No, this video—of the Chelyabinsk meteorite being recovered from Lake Chebarkul—has no sound.)

Discussion Ideas

  • Read the headline of this blog post, or look at the brilliant Boston Globe page that did it first, back in February. Why is the headline so awesome?
    • It’s perfect, and proves that English Lit. degrees are sometimes worth it.
      • Journalism: Editors who write headlines and cutlines (captions) always try to make them smart, informative, and—above all—accurate and descriptive. It’s a deceptively difficult part of journalism! The Boston Globe writer could very easily have left the headline as “Meteor Falls Over Russia”, which is important information. Instead, the writer chose to convey that information in the sub-hed (secondary headline), along with an excellent question that makes the story relevant to a local audience. Well-played, Boston Globe.
      • English Lit: The headline itself is actually the first sentence of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), often recognized as one of the best American novels ever written. Pynchon is describing V-2 rockets screaming across the skies of London during World War II, while the headline-writer is describing a meteor screaming across the sky of contemporary rural Russia. The physics of the two situations, however, are the same. In fact, the V-2 was the first human instrument to ever enter outer space, and its screaming descent as it re-entered the atmosphere is exactly the same phenomenon residents of Chelyabinsk witnessed in February. Very well-played, Boston Globe.
  • Read our very short encyclopedic entries on meteoroid, meteor, and meteorite. They’re all rocks from outer space. Which best describes the Chelyabinsk rock described in the Nat Geo News article?
    • The Chelyabinsk rock recovered from the lake is a meteorite, although it’s really a trick question.
      • The rock was a meteoroid when it was casually orbiting the sun as part of the Apollo group of asteroids.
      • The rock became a meteor the second it entered Earth’s atmosphere, lighting up the sky (or screaming across it) as a “shooting star.” This was the phase caught by weather satellites orbiting Earth, as described in the Nat Geo News article.
      • The rock became a meteorite when it crashed into Earth itself. Much of the rock burned up in Earth’s atmosphere (in its meteor stage) but the chunk that was left was heavy enough to break the scales measuring it—654 kilograms (1,442 pounds).
  • Our encyclopedic entry on meteor says that most meteors last only a few seconds and burn up long before they impact with Earth. Why do you think the Chelyabinsk meteor was visible for so long and didn’t burn up?
    • It was HUGE! The Nat Geo News article describes the Chelyabinsk meteor as “about the size of a small house” when it entered Earth’s atmosphere. It simply didn’t have time to burn up before crashing to Earth. Having said that, consider how much of the rock did burn up—the rock in the video is nowhere near the size of a house.
  • Read our short section on weather satellites. Why do you think weather satellites may be a valuable tool in studying meteors? What do you think are their drawbacks?
    • The last part of the Nat Geo News article really answers both these questions.
      • Weather satellites may be valuable for tracking the trajectory of a meteor as it enters Earth’s atmosphere. Such tracking could give hours of warning to areas (such as Chelyabinsk) that may be affected. The property damage could not be averted, but people could evacuate to safe areas.
      • Weather satellites may not be the most effective tool for studying meteors because their focus is on Earth and its atmosphere, not space.

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