More than 1,000 people were injured early Friday morning when a meteor rocketed across the Chelyabinsk region of Russia, but during an appearance on the "Today" show, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson warned that the damage could be much worse. The bright light from the meteor was joined by a concussion that broke windows, set off car alarms and reportedly caved the roof of a factory building.
Luckily, the rare event took place in Siberia, though, where the population is much smaller and more disseminated.
“It’s a shock wave, basically,” Tyson said. “The physics of it is, it’s coming in, and, when it hits Earth’s atmosphere, it feels like a brick wall because of how fast it’s moving. When you hit a brick wall, you basically explode, and that’s what happened here -- it exploded in mid-air.
“That shockwave shatters glass or anything fragile and breakable over a huge radius,” he continued. “Remember the Oklahoma City bomb that destroyed the building it hit, but of course much of the glass was shattered in the surrounding are. That’s the effect of a shockwave air blast in an explosion of this kind.”
Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York City's Museum of Natural History and the host of "Star Talk Radio." He’s become the go-to scientific source for major talk shows, perhaps most notably “Real Time with Bill Maher,” "The Daily Show" and “The Colbert Report.” Much of his appeal comes from the ability to explain complex science in such a way that’s easy to understand and with a sense of humor.
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Multiple amateur videos posted online clearly show the meteor with a bright flame and loud boom before striking Earth. Office buildings in the region were evacuated, and many cars pulled over to the side of road.
“There was panic. People had no idea what was happening,” Sergey Hametov, a resident of Chelyabinsk, told the Associated Press. “We saw a big burst of light, then went outside to see what it was, and we heard a really loud, thundering sound.”
Despite the widespread fear that naturally came from such an occurrence, Tyson reassured viewers that the Russian meteor isn’t a sign of things to come -- hopefully.
“Based on exploded air bursts that we’ve seen in the past, this could happen perhaps once a decade,” Tyson said, before warning that humans are almost completely helpless if a larger meteor strikes Earth. “Below a certain-size asteroid, they come in without warning. Above a certain size, our radar can detect them; the military certainly has a smaller threshold for what they can see coming in.
“But by the time you see these coming in, there’s no defense against them. So something this size is not going to render the human species extinct. Something large enough we can detect would.”