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Russia scientists call for prevention after space rock blast

As officials hunt for pieces of the rock, scientists say the event over Chelyabinsk is a warning to implement a monitoring system to better detect celestial objects and avert catastrophes.

February 16, 2013|By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times
  • A large piece of the space rock is believed to have punched this hole in Chebarkul Lake, west of Chelyabinsk, Russia. Divers' initial search of the lake did not turn up any remnants of the object, which NASA called a "tiny asteroid."
A large piece of the space rock is believed to have punched this hole in Chebarkul… (Sergei Ilnitsky / European…)

MOSCOW — As Russian authorities searched Saturday for remnants of the space object that startled residents of the southern Ural Mountain region a day earlier, scientists called its shock wave a loud warning that they hoped would inspire action to prevent potential catastrophes.

"When a small piece of rock would fall on the Earth 100 years ago, it could have caused minimal damage and would have stayed largely undetected, but Friday's accident fully demonstrated how vulnerable the technological civilization of today has become," Vladimir Lipunov, head of the Space Monitoring Laboratory with Moscow State University, said in an interview.

"It is high time for Russia to start heavily investing in building an advanced space danger monitoring and warning system, and above that, a system capable of destroying such super bombs falling on us from the skies," he said.

The scientist's remarks echoed concern displayed by government officials.

"Today neither Russia nor the United States is capable of shooting down objects from outer space," tweeted Dmitry Rogozin, vice premier in charge of the nation's defense industry.

What NASA described as a "tiny asteroid" wreaked havoc in the densely populated and highly industrialized Chelyabinsk region early Friday, its shock wave resulting in injuries to more than 1,100 people and causing millions of dollars in damage to buildings and disrupted phone and Internet communications.

The massive sonic boom damaged 3,000 houses, 34 hospitals and clinics, and 360 schools, as well as several businesses, officials said. At least three hockey games were canceled because of damage to the local rink.

Regional Gov. Mikhail Yurevich told reporters Saturday that damage exceeded $33 million but that 30% of the windows broken by the shock wave had already been replaced. About 20,000 municipal employees, emergency workers and volunteers worked around the clock to fix the windows in a region where the overnight temperature fell to minus-4 degrees.

Police have collected several small pieces of a black rock-like substance believed to be from the space object that broke apart as it exploded over the area, Interfax reported. Divers finished their initial inspection of Chebarkul Lake, about 40 miles west of Chelyabinsk, but found no traces of the object, a big chunk of which was believed to have fallen into the lake, breaking the thick ice.

The Chelyabinsk region has long been one of the most important military industrial regions of Russia, where you "can't drive a mile without passing a defense or a nuclear industry installation," Lipunov said.

"We should be thankful to fate that this meteor, in fact, was a blessing in disguise, and instead of destroying a significant part of Russia with quite dire consequences to the rest of the world, it sent us a clear warning signal by simply blowing up a bunch of windows and lightly injuring over 1,000 people," the scientist said.

Rogozin said that on Monday he would provide Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev with proposals on possible ways to detect space objects approaching Earth and reduce the danger.

Lipunov said his monitoring system of four 15.7-inch telescopes deployed across Russia was able to produce a high-quality two-hour video of the 2012 DA14 asteroid, a much larger space rock that coincidentally passed close to Earth on Friday. But he said his lab could not discern smaller asteroids and meteors, which can also pose a grave risk.

Many Russian experts say that government funding for a monitoring system should be reinstated and that it should be equipped with 59-inch telescopes like those in the United States.

"Americans can, for example, detect a dangerous object and calculate that it can fall somewhere in the Urals, but that doesn't concern them," Alexander Bagrov, a senior researcher with the Astronomy Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Russia-24, a government news television network.

Bagrov spoke in favor of creating an early warning system of satellites monitoring space for signs of approaching danger, but Lipunov countered that a space-based system would be more expensive and could take a decade to install, and even then it would not be as reliable as an Earth-based system equipped with powerful telescopes.

In the meantime, residents of the region relived Friday's momentary panic and congratulated one another for surviving what they termed "the apocalypse."

"I am being bombed from outer space by some superior force," one user posted on his social media account, recalling his immediate reaction.

"It was a fantastic feeling how we were all united by our common [doom], as everybody was sharing with everybody else how scared he was," another user wrote.

"As these people were united in their horror and their panic on Friday in the Chelyabinsk region," said Lipunov, "so the governments of the most developed countries should unite in creating a system of warning and global protection from surprise attack from space."

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

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