Timing, as they say, is everything. A meteor hit in the Russian Urals region Friday morning, February 15, 2012, in combination with the a close flyby of a near-Earth asteroid on the same day is trigging a wave of awareness that should prove beneficial to NASA, not-for-profit and commercial efforts to learn more about the rocks that crowd our skies.
Hundreds of people have been hurt and thousands of buildings have been damaged in this morning's meteor fall in central Russia, reports RIA Novosti. As of late afternoon local time, around 1,000 people had been reported injured. The majority of those had suffered cuts from broken glass, with a government official calling two-thirds of the injuries "very light."
Russian officials immediately mobilized 20,000 emergency workers and were monitoring radiation levels, a concern due to the number of nuclear facilities in the area including the country's largest nuclear fuel-processing plant.
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, said the object was a single meteorite that burnt as it entered the atmosphere and disintegrated into smaller pieces.
Scientists say the Russian meteor has nothing to do with the close flyby of near-Earth asteroid 2012 DA14 happening at around 2:00 PM EST today. The rock will make its closest approach at around 2:15 PM EST and be about 17,150 miles above the Earth's surface as it zips by at 17,450 miles per hour, closer than the 22,500 miles orbit of man-made geosynchronous satellites. It is around 150 feet wide.
Deep Space Industries (DSI), an asteroid company launched last month, estimated that 2012 DA could have a value of nearly $200 billion, reported a story in Space.com. It was a figure that was quickly called into question by scientists who have more carefully studied the object, but the questionable statement served to give DSI more press.
Planetary Resources, the other asteroid mining company, wasn't going to be short-changed in the 2012 DA14 PR coat-tails department. It issued a release pointing out its Arkyd-100 series of spacecraft would assist in early detection and characterization of near-Earth objects, with follow-on spacecraft having the "capability and infrastructure" for intercepting asteroids which "will inform the deflection of potentially rogue objects." (Translation: We're working on the technology to get more information on all those near-Earth rocks and should get data useful to deflect one that might kill life on Earth.)
The not-profit B612 Foundation is getting a couple of phone calls today after today's Russia event. The organization is dedicated to protecting humanity from asteroid impacts. It is currently working on raising $400 million to launch an infrared space telescope to discover, map and track asteroids whose orbits approach Earth.
NASA has long articulated a goal of visiting an asteroid. One scheme that has been talked up in back rooms recently is for the agency to go capture a 500 metric ton near-Earth object and bring it to a parking orbit around the Moon for robotic and manned visits.
Edited by Brooke Neuman