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Tracking the Chelyabinsk Impactor

Yesterday’s post on the distribution of asteroid populations inevitably had me thinking about the Chelyabinsk event on February 15, 2013, and about the concurrent flyby of the asteroid (367943) Duende, which took place on the same day. A scant sixteen hours after the explosion of the Chelyabinsk bolide and the fall of five tons of meteoritic material to the ground in Siberia, (367943) Duende passed by at about 27,700 kilometers above the surface of the Earth.

We talked yesterday about learning more about asteroid distributions, so we could understand where they come from and what to expect as we assess their trajectories. In the case of Chelyabinsk, it was originally thought that both events were related, with the Chelyabinsk impactor associated with (367943) Duende in the form of a companion object, or perhaps as material that broke away from the parent asteroid. But an analysis of the orbits of both objects as well as spectroscopic analysis of Duende and the Chelyabinsk material says otherwise.

We’re fortunate with Chelyabinsk in having so much data on the object. As this story in Sinc: La ciencia es noticia points out, dashcams are quite popular in Russia, and it is thanks to many of these — along with traffic cameras, security cameras and other sources — that we have a catalog of 960 video recordings. There were many witnesses making manual recordings, and we likewise have plenty of written accounts from those startled by the spectacular event.

All of this has led to calculations of the atmospheric entry trajectory of the object that exploded some 20 kilometers over Siberia, releasing approximately 500 kilotons of energy. The resulting shockwave damaged property out to a distance of 120 kilometers and caused 1491 injuries. At the bottom of Lake Chebarkul divers were able to recover a 650 kg meteorite. So we have plentiful data, allowing researchers to work out different orbital solutions for the parent asteroid.


Image: The Chelyabinsk event as recorded by dashcam north of the city.

Sinc focuses on the work of Carlos and Raúl de la Fuente Marcos who, with Sverre J. Aarseth (University of Cambridge) have searched for the parent body of the Chelyabinsk superbolide. Their work, reported in The Astrophysical Journal finds that the asteroid 2011 EO40 is a dynamically related object, with the Chelyabinsk impactor’s orbit altered because of a close encounter with the Earth in 1982. A trajectory that had paralleled that of 2011 EO40 was transformed into an Earth-crossing path that would strike our planet decades later.

Complicating the analysis is the complexity of the gravitational resonances near the Earth that can cause asteroids of highly different origins to fall into orbits that are relatively similar. The de la Fuente Marcos brothers pursued the investigation in a recent issue of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, where a grouping called 5011 Ptah (named after the only named asteroid in the grouping) is considered as a possible source for Chelyabinsk. From the paper (H stands for absolute magnitude):

This orbital parameter subdomain contains 180 NEOs, the only named object in the list is 5011 Ptah (6743 P-L) although it is not the largest of the group (H = 16.4 mag), 86039 (1999 NC43) is probably larger (H = 16.0 mag); the smallest member of the group is 2002 SQ222 (H = 30.1 mag). Two objects from this group, 86039… and 2011 EO40… have been linked to the Chelyabinsk impactor. Reddy et al. (2015) have pointed out that the existence of a connection between the Chelyabinsk meteoroid and 86039 is rather weak, both in dynamical and compositional terms. Besides there is yet no spectroscopic evidence linking 2011 EO40 to Chelyabinsk. However, the orbit of the actual impactor was almost certainly part of this dynamical grouping…

These are groupings of asteroids that move in similar orbits. They are dynamically but not physically related:

… we have shown statistically that the distribution of the NEO population in orbital parameter space is far from random. We have confirmed the presence of statistically significant dynamical groupings among the NEO population… Some of these dynamical groupings appear to have been the immediate sources of recent asteroid impact events and are likely to continue doing so in the future. The groupings host both relatively large (size between 200 m and 700 m) and very small (a few metres) objects which suggest that some of the smaller fragments may have been produced in situ via rotational instability or other mechanisms… Production of meteoroids within the immediate neighbourhood of the Earth has a direct impact on the evaluation of the overall asteroid impact hazard… However and although this is of considerable theoretical interest, most of these fragments are small enough to be of less concern in practice.

So while we can’t yet pinpoint the origin of the Chelyabinsk impactor, we’re making progress in understanding the various groupings that Near-Earth Objects can fall into. All of this can help us place events like 2008 TC3 in Sudan or 2014 AA in the Atlantic Ocean in context. According to this work, both of these asteroids, which caused no significant damage or injury, belong to the groups the de la Fuente Marcos brothers have analyzed. Studies like these and the ongoing work of projects like the Catalina Sky Survey give us a better sense of the odds of impact and help us prepare in case larger asteroids are found on dangerous trajectories.

The papers are C. de la Fuente Marcos, R. de la Fuente Marcos, S. J. Aarseth. “Chasing the Chelyabinsk asteroid N-body style,” The Astrophysical Journal 812 (October 2015) 26 (abstract). The more recent paper is C. de la Fuente Marcos, R. de la Fuente Marcos. “Far from random: dynamical groupings among the NEO population,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 456 (3 (March, 2016) 2946-2956 (abstract).


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Larry Kennedy February 18, 2016, 13:34

    When the first twitters hit about Chelyabinsk I was sceptical about it being an asteroid just because of the coincidence. Soon put to rest of course.

  • Hop David February 18, 2016, 14:25

    If memory serves John S. Lewis talked about smeared bodies in his book Rain of Iron and Ice. Comet Shoemaker Levy Jupiter periapsis taking it beneath the Roche Limit and giving a string of pearls. Or comets whose perihelions cause their volatiles to violently sublimate and scatter the body.

    He mentioned how some well known annual meteor showers coincide with earth passing through the paths of smeared comets.

    He noted not all the fragments were dust specks but could also include boulders of varying sizes. He speculated that some of the big impacts might be some of these fragments.

  • Alex Tolley February 18, 2016, 16:55

    I’ve recently come across this site that gives you access to a number of journal articles behind paywalls. Apparently it is better than most university systems for accessing journal articles. The above referenced paper by Marcos is accessible.


    • Eniac February 19, 2016, 11:53

      Great one! Best bookmark it now, before Paul has to comply with the inevitable take-down notice….

    • Wrigsted the Dane February 21, 2016, 11:48

      Yep, thanks m8.

  • Rob Henry February 22, 2016, 15:43

    If meteorite and comet impacts are this non-random, wouldn’t that interfere with our current risk assessment of being hit by one of significant size. I remember everyone saying ‘aren’t we lucky to see this happen in our lifetimes’ as shoemaker levy 9 hit. I couldn’t help thinking that the Jovian capture area was only 100x our own for fast objects, a 1000x, at most, our own, with gravitational focusing, for slow objects. I couldn’t help feeling that there was a 0.1-1% chance that incident would have been us witnessing the end of every single person we knew.

    I remind you that the impacts were over its limb on the far side, yet what little we could see of these flashes more than doubled Jupiter’s brightness. The marks left by several fragments were larger than Earth’s diameter. I found it so strange that no one said ‘as soon as humanity gets a space based industry, we will have many ways of deflecting one from Earth’. Instead most still went with ‘let’s solve all our problems on Earth before we think of space’. They had seen everything but noticed nothing.

  • Mike Fidler February 23, 2016, 22:41
  • Mike Fidler February 24, 2016, 4:18

    How much are we missing? 75% of the earth is covered by oceans, how much arctic, desert, cloud cover and other low population areas lead to a small percentage of observations. What does NASA and the military have from space that can see these meteors, fireballs and bolides?

    • Alex Tolley February 24, 2016, 15:06

      Norad tracks a lot of these. They monitor all these bursts as part of missile defense and nuclear weapons testing. There was some fuss a few years ago when they stopped (temporarily?] releasing data to the astronomical community for asteroid information. If someone knows more about this, they can correct/update this.

  • Mike Fidler February 24, 2016, 4:39

    Largest Fireball Since Chelyabinsk Falls Over the Atlantic
    Found this on Phil Plait site Bad Astronomy:
    It would’ve been a dramatic sight to say the least. But, it happened about 1,000 kilometers off the coast of Brazil, ESE of Rio de Janeiro. That’s far enough out over the ocean that it’s unlikely anyone saw it. So how do we know about it?

    Good question. The report came to the JPL folks via the U.S. government; as you might imagine, various arms of the military are curious indeed about atmospheric explosions. However, not much information is revealed by the source; just the time, direction, explosive yield, and things like that. I can think of three ways to detect a big fireball in this case: Satellite observations, which would image them directly; seismic monitors, which can detect the explosion as the sound wave from the blast moves through the ground; and atmospheric microphones, which can detect the long-wavelength infrasound from an event. This may have been detected by any combination of these (though since it was over the open ocean, seismic monitors seen unlikely).

    It was picked up by two Infrasound stations in Antarctica at 5000 & 8000 km distance. So how good are these at detecting and how many exist?

  • Mike Fidler February 24, 2016, 22:27