PARIS- A year ago on Saturday, inhabitants of the Russian city of Chelyabinsk looked skyward, some frozen in fear that a nuclear war had begun.
Overhead, an asteroid exploded in a ball of fire, sending debris plummeting to Earth in brilliant streaks.
The shock-wave blew out windows, hurting about 1,600 people, and the burst of ultraviolet light was so strong that more than two dozen people suffered skin burns.
Today, enshrined in Russia’s folk memory as a big scare, the Chelyabinsk Meteorite, for space scientists, is a boon.
They say it has yielded unprecedented insights into the makeup and orbit of asteroids and the risks that a rogue rock may pose to Earth.
“It was a remarkable event,” Mark Bailey, director of the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland, told AFP.
Only a few asteroids ever cross Earth’s path. Fewer still survive the fiery contest of friction with the atmosphere. Those that do are likely to fall in the sea, which covers more than two-thirds of the planet, or in a remote area, such as desert, tundra or Antarctica.
So for a meteorite to explode over a city — where mobile phones and dashboard cameras recorded the event — and in a country with a rich scientific tradition, was an extraordinary plus for researchers.
The event “has provided colossal information,” said Viktor Grokhovsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences.