Asteroids and meteors pass by earth on the same day - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 15 February

You wait years for space debris to come within range of the Earth and then two chunks come along on the same day.

Asteroids and meteors pass by earth on the same day

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 15 February

Kerra Maddern

You wait years for space debris to come within range of the Earth and then two chunks come along on the same day.

For weeks now, astronomers have been excitedly predicting that an asteroid big enough to destroy a large city would pass by our planet this evening. But out of the blue, just as the world’s scientists were readying themselves for this rare occurrence, a meteor streaked across the sky above Russia’s Ural Mountains, leaving as many as 400 people injured in its wake.

The extraordinary thing is that the two incidents are almost certainly unrelated. Tim O’Brien, associate director of the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory, explained: “It looks like they were moving in different directions and weren't on the same orbit.

“[The meteor in Russia] was moving faster than the speed of sound, maybe 20,000 miles per hour. It made a sonic boom in the atmosphere, and that hit buildings and shattered windows. That is what seems to have caused the injuries.

“It’s a completely abnormal experience. This thing appeared in the distance, raced over the horizon and was followed up 30 seconds or a minute later by a huge boom as the shockwave hit the ground. I can imagine that would be very frightening.”

Scientists say there is no chance of this evening’s asteroid hitting the Earth but it will come as close as 17,200 miles. This may sound a long way away but is actually considered nearby in astronomical terms. For example, it will be within the orbits of more than 100 telecommunication and weather satellites.

Named 2012 DA14 by astronomers, the asteroid has been closely tracked since its discovery by staff at a Spanish observatory a year ago. It is about the size of an average office block.

Robin Scagell, vice-president of the Society for Popular Astronomy, said: “The asteroid will be a faint dot of light moving at a steady rate between the stars. It’ll be thousands of times fainter than Jupiter.”

It will move at about five miles a second, 22,000 miles above the Earth.

Scientists will use radar to study DA14 and learn about its composition and structure. Any information they gain will help them work out how to deal with threats posed by other space rocks that look likely to hit the Earth.

Did you know?

  • The Chicxulub Meteor, which struck the planet just off the coast of what we know today as Mexico more than 65 million years ago, is believed to be responsible for the extinction of dinosaurs. The effects of the meteorite, which left a crater more than 100 miles in diameter, were felt around the globe; the collision caused earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and mega-tsunamis.
  • Canada is the location of some of the biggest impact craters on the planet, including Sudbury Basin in Ontario, Manicouagan Crater and the Clearwater Lakes, both in Quebec, Mistastin Lake in Labrador and Deep Bay in Saskatchewan.
  • The largest impact crater ever to have existed on the planet is the Vredefort Crater in South Africa. Although much of it has now eroded away, it is thought that the crater was originally around 190 miles in diameter, and was caused by an impact that hit the Earth over 2 billion years ago.
  • The largest crater in the solar system thought to be caused by an impact is the Borealis Basin on Mars, which was mapped by Nasa in 2008. Mars is also home to the largest visible impact crater in the solar system: Hellas Planitia, which measures around 1,400 miles across and is more than 7,000 miles deep.
  • Nasa estimates that an average of one catalogued piece of orbital debris enters the Earth’s atmosphere every day. Most debris is destroyed by the extreme heat caused by entering the Earth’s atmosphere at speed; the pieces that survive are statistically most likely to fall into the ocean, or sparsely populated areas.
  • Asteroid and comet impact is measured according to the Torino Scale. The scale was devised by Richard P. Binzel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a way of communicating impact risk to the public. Measurements range from 0, where the likelihood of collision is zero, or “so small as to be effectively zero”, to 10, where a collision is certain and may threaten the future of civilisation “as we know it”.
  • DA14, which will be passing by the Earth on 15 February 2013, is categorised as a 0.
  • The frequency of an asteroid rated as 10 on the Torino Scale hitting the planet is once in 100,000 years, or less often.

Questions for your class

  • Why is it important for scientists to monitor objects in space and to continue to learn about them?
  • How does science help to protect us from disasters? Can you think of specific examples?
  • Astronomers study celestial bodies (objects in the sky). What celestial bodies can you see for yourself without a telescope?
  • Natural disasters are a popular subject for film and literature. How many examples of this can you think of? If you were going to pitch your own disaster movie, what would it be about?

Related resources

Comets and meteors

  • A PowerPoint explaining the difference between a comet, an asteroid, a meteor and a meteorite. It discusses the composition of each with definitions and links to useful videos and websites.

Exploring space

  • Find out about space exploration and satellites with this set of collaborative classroom activities.


  • Join the dots to find seasonal night-time constellations with this ideal starter activity.

Professor Brian Cox: The Big Bang Live Lesson

  • Take a look at Professor Cox’s lesson on life, the universe and our solar system, filmed in a school in West Sussex.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

In the news this week

Libraries, those bastions of public learning open to anyone with a plastic membership card, should be allowed to wither and die, a leading children’s author said this week.

Alain de Botton, a philosopher and writer, wants serious ideas to be discussed more widely.

Scientists in the secretive single-party state of North Korea have carried out their third nuclear test, prompting alarm among other nations around the world.

The world has been shocked by the surprise announcement this morning that Pope Benedict XVI is to resign at the end of this month.

In the news archive index