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Published: Tuesday, 2/19/2013

Out of this world

In this photo from a dashboard camera, a meteor streaks through the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia. In this photo from a dashboard camera, a meteor streaks through the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia.

When a meteor exploded over Russia late last week, the world was suddenly reminded that we live in a universe full of fast-moving objects that tend to smash into each other without warning.

For billions of years, Earth has been ground zero for millions of meteors and untold numbers of asteroids that have scarred the planet. Much of the water in our oceans arrived in the form of dirty snowballs from space.

These objects make a lot of noise and sometimes do a lot of damage, but they have played an essential role in the evolution of our planet. Still, we don’t appreciate the fireworks that can occur until a 10-ton meteor traveling at 33,000 miles an hour, such as the one that exploded over the Chelyabinsk region, generates a shock wave that knocks out the windows of an estimated 3,000 buildings.

There were no deaths, but 1,100 people reported injuries from broken and flying glass and sought medical attention. Dozens required hospitalization.

The meteor’s quick descent was captured on cell phones and dashboard cameras, and sparked panic among older residents. The world didn’t end, but watching a 49-foot meteor explode near their city and scatter fragments over roughly 20 miles was the next scariest thing for lots of Russians.

After the terror over the previously undetected meteor subsided, attention turned to an asteroid that sailed safely past Earth several hours later. A mere 17,000 miles separated us from impact. We’re reminded that we’re in no position to take our planet’s safety for granted.

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