Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Tale of Two Space Rocks

So yesterday, two completely unrelated space rocks made history.

The first we saw coming. We'd been tracking it for months. We knew its size (45 meters across), we knew what time it'd make its closest approach to Earth (2:25pm EST), and we knew just how close it would get (17,200 miles from Earth's surface). Our telescopes were trained and ready. Cameras were set. We got some cool images of it sailing by:

Gif via NASA

And then...then there was the space rock we didn't see coming.


A 15 meter wide, 7000 ton meteor streaked across the Russian sky yesterday, traveling 18 km/s (11 miles/second, which, for perspective, is 39,600 mph).

It broke apart as it flung across the sky at an incredibly shallow angle, creating a sonic boom from its shockwave and several other loud booms from the exploding material it cast off (rock that was exploding, by the way, from the sheer heat that was involved).

It shattered glass throughout the city of Chelaybinsk, and the resulting damage injured nearly 1000 people in the area.

Photo ITAR-TASS Itar-Tass Photos/Newscom
It appears that main chunk of it landed in a lake, busting through the Siberian ice. It also is likely this meteor was of the rocky variety, rather than the extremely metallic variety, because of how much it broke apart. For videos of this event, you can check out my blog post from yesterday. And for more detailed information, check out this site here.

So here we are. Two space rocks later. Two space rocks very much NOT related to each other, as astronomers keep stressing (they had completely different orbits in space, so yeah). One of these space rocks we saw coming, one we did not.

So did someone mess up? Should we have seen this meteor coming before it struck our atmosphere?

Well, given its Not with what we currently have to work with, anyway.

As I discussed in a blog post last month, scientists are getting really good at detecting space rocks around us, but there's still a long way to go. We have found most of the "large" rocks, aka the ones over 100 meters across. But anything under 50 meters is much harder to detect. It can be done, but it will require continued funding and increased manpower to do it.

That being said, the asteroid that flew by yesterday WAS under 50 meters, and we DID detect that one. So way to go, folks over at the Minor Planet Center!

But while asteroid 2012 DA14 was 45 meters across and considered impressive to detect, remember...the Russian meteor was only 15 meters across. Very few things at that size have been detected so far, because the MPC has (understandably) been concentrating their efforts on locating the "biggies" first.

What the events of yesterday should teach us isn't that we should panic about countless massive rocks hurdling out of the sky, but rather how important it is to continue the study of space so we can be better prepared. No one should even have a question in their mind as to why we should spend money on learning about the universe beyond Earth's little bubble.

We saw one space rock coming.

We didn't see the other one.

We saw one space rock coming.

We didn't see the other one.

Friday, February 15, 2013

HUGE METEOR Breaks Apart Over Russia

This morning in Russia, THIS happened:

OH MY GOD. THAT IS SO AWESOME AND ALSO MILDLY TERRIFYING. Oh, and accompanying this huge meteor was an equally huge shockwave that, for many people, didn't reach them for several moments after the meteor passed. Watch this video and listen carefully at the 27 second mark...

Yeah. It was loud. REALLY REALLY LOUD.

And it shattered glass all over the place. There are reports of injuries from the shattered glass, but right now this is all so new it's hard to know what is real and what isn't. What is known is that THIS IS TOTALLY AWESOME for everyone that isn't injured or has property damage.

For the most updated and scientifically sound information (and less EXCITED CAPSLOCK), go read Phil Plait's analysis of the Russian Meteor. You can even quit reading this post if you'd like and skip straight to Phil's, because it has the best information I've found so far about all this (and where I swiped these awesome videos).

Meanwhile, for those wondering, it doesn't seem like this event has anything at all to do with the asteroid passing by Earth later today. 2012DA14 is moving in a completely different orbit (passes by us around 2:25pm EST today), so it's basically impossible for this meteor to have been a broken off part of that asteroid.


So rest easy, it is highly unlikely any more big space rocks are going to rain down on us today. This is a great reminder, though, of how important it is to keep funding space programs. If you must panic, may I recommend channeling that panic as funding for science? Pretty please?

Now, excuse me while I go find other awesome photographs and pictures of this amazingly cool event. I'll definitely update this blog post later if news changes or if I find something that needs to be shared.


METEOR SONIC BOOM! I mean, seriously!!!

...Okay, I'm done now. Just had to get that out one more time.

EDIT: Reports now saying close to 1000 injured, thankfully none reported killed so far. Many buildings are evacuated for fear of structural compromise. Some amazing pictures of the meteor and the damage here:

EDIT 2: This Russian Livejournal account has probably the best collection of images and videos I've found yet:

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Boston Blizzard!

So I decided to post my running commentary of the past two days from Facebook and Twitter here on my blog, including relevant pictures. It might not be the most "science-y" of posts, but it does tell a fun story of one girl, a blizzard, and only a computer as means of social contact. Also, the tragedy of THUNDERSNOW.

From 2/8/13:

The media is treating this THUNDERSNOW event as COMPLETELY EPIC, and I'm more than happy to keep up the dramatics for them. As such...

Boston Blizzard check-in #1:

7am. Woke up. All is quiet. Not a flurry in sight.

7:20 am. Opened blinds. Noticed some poor soul forgot to move his car for the Somerville parking ban. Orange ticket sighted.

7:30 am. Really getting intensely weirded out by the silence. Gov. Patrick ordered all traffic off road by noon, but it seems most of us have already hunkered down in wait. Usual morning honking, car-sputtering, and engines roaring (as cars inevitably decide to use my sidestreet as a shortcut) is all...quiet.

7:31 am. One car noise, just as I typed the above!'s a plow. Moving into tactical position, I'm sure.

...More updates to come.

Boston Blizzard check-in #2:

9am. Normal rush hour traffic is nonexistent. It's usually a parking lot around here at 9, but today it's empty.

9:35am. First flurries falling.

9:55am. Flurries switching over to real snowfall. Beginning to accumulate on the ground. Here we go!

9:57am. No sign of THUNDERSNOW yet. But we can hope.

Boston Blizzard check-in #3:

11:30 am. Nice solid dusting of snow over everything.

11:40 am. Electric company called to tell me they're going to "try their best". They did this for Sandy, too. Nice of them, but still an awkward recorded phone call.

11:45 am. Decided to tackle the dishes in the sink. Made it more exciting by imagining the water going out later and this being my last chance to assure myself clean dishes for the weekend.

11:50 am. Thrill of emergency-dish-washing has passed. Weather Channel running out of things to talk about.

11:56 am. Snow is getting heavier and is now blowing in fun new directions such as "sideways" and "up".

11:58 am. Sirens outside as cops patrol the neighborhood, urging drivers and pedestrians to get off the streets.

11:59 am. Still no THUNDERSNOW. I'm patient, though.

Boston Blizzard check-in #4:

12:45 pm. Gov. Patrick BANS all road travel beginning at 4pm. Let's see how well that actually works.

1:10 pm. My view of the Boston skyline is completely blocked by snow. Is the city still there? I'm assuming so, because I just watched Fisher broadcast from the Common on TWC. Though, I suppose that doesn't mean the buildings haven't disappeared...hmmm...

1:25 pm. Winds starting to plaster snow to the sides of buildings. They say 2pm is when things are going to get heavy, but I think some of the heavy snow is sneaking in early. (THUNDERSNOW still holding out.)

1:37 pm. Blaring cop sirens. Car parked on the banned side of the street just outside. Frazzled looking dude had to run out and move his vehicle, or face the wrath of Somerville's finest.

Boston Blizzard check-in #5:

3:05 pm. First plowing of our street!

3:40 pm. Definitely a good inch or more on the ground now. Weird to think it's going to be way more in less than 12 hours. Snow is in eensy tiny flakes and wind is gusting so it looks like someone's just waving giant semi-translucent white sheets around outside.

4:00 pm. Travel ban starts NOW in Massachusetts. Outside, people speeding along the roads trying to get home. Not sure that's the safest decision, though apparently driving after 4 today gets you a $500 fine or a year in jail, so...I'm not judging.

4:02 pm. Also, coastal communities asked to evacuate now. Living west of Boston on top of a hill means I'm a-okay to stay. Thank goodness, because we're not allowed to drive anymore. Really curious as to what this means for people who are meant to evacuate. Hmm. Not sure they thought that one through all too well.

4:06 pm. Closer to two inches on the ground now. Things are ramping up! Bring on the THUNDERSNOW! (Noisy wind gusts, you aren't fooling me! Give me some real thunder!)

Boston Blizzard check-in #6:

4:30 pm. Decided to head outside and clear off my car, which had about two inches of clumpy wet snow on it, to avoid it freezing over when the major snow hits tonight.

4:40 pm. Went back inside, my footprints from when I'd walked out had already disappeared.

4:50 pm. Last of the snow melted through my hair, soaking me even while indoors.

4:55 pm. Double plows now out and about in the neighborhood. Also, sun going down. Night Blizzard time!

5:04. TWC reports: Gonna be going "gangbusters" in Boston by 5 am tomorrow. Also, Cantore's gonna get jazzed on Dunkin' and he'll be "rockin' it" all night. Most importantly, THUNDERSNOW heard just south of Long Island. It's coming!

Boston Blizzard check-in #7:

6:30 pm. Plows visited our driveway, and I went outside to inspect things. Discovered 3 or 4 inches of snow had fallen.

8:30 pm. Peeked outside again. Snow had easily doubled in amounts. Wind ripping through the neighborhood. Still waiting for my THUNDERSNOW.

9:05 pm. Power outages climb.

9:27 pm. Getting close to my bedtime, blizzard or no blizzard. Charging all my gadgets in case I lose power overnight. Decided to sum up the evening in one final check-in just in case. Sleep will happen soon. All wittiness has already turned in for the night. I think I'll follow suit in a few minutes. Looking forward to waking up in the middle of the night to loud claps of THUNDERSNOW!

Expect a new report in the morning, unless I lose power! ;)

From 2/9/13:

Boston Blizzard check-in #8:

6 am. Woke up because my cat was coughing up a hairball. So much for sleeping in on this wintry day!

6:05 am. Realized I must've slept through any THUNDERSNOW we'd had a chance of getting. Drat! Oh well, it's not like I haven't heard THUNDERSNOW before...

6:16 am. Peeked out the windows to see, by my estimation, at least a foot and a half of snow on the ground with more still falling.

6:55 am. Took some pictures out the window, decided I needed to go outside to see things better.

7:02 am. Put on my tennis shoes and my jacket, telling myself if I did that I wouldn't stay out for long.

7:05 am. Stood on the porch, woefully watching others enjoy the snow (or in some cases, not enjoy the snow...some people were trying to dig their cars out already). Darn my knee, holding me back from awesomeness.

7:06 am. Attempted to make a tiny snowman, but the snow was way too powdery.

7:10 am. Someone brought their dogs out. Cannot promise this had no bearing on what happened next.

7:11 am. Made the decision to brave my completely buried building stairwell and venture forth. Carefully.

7:12 am. Made it to the bottom of the stairs! Also, now standing in waist-high snow on the sidewalk.

7:14 am. Shoved through the plowed snow to get onto the street.

7:20 am. Made random blizzard friends and began to wander the neighborhood.

7:30 am. Finally caught up to the dogs. Pet them. My morning goal was now complete.

7:55 am. Headed back indoors to report: It is still snowing. And it is still windy. And we have somewhere between 18-24 inches of snow, like they forecasted. With all the drifting, I can't get more precise than that.

Boston Blizzard check-in #9:

11:51 am. Somerville called to say "Yeaaaaaaaaahhhh...there's a sh*t-ton of snow. We're not ending our bans anytime soon, and neither is the governor so...ya'know, just sit tight." (Not an exact quote of their update, but you get the idea.)

11:55 am. Sky is very bright. Still cloudy, but bright. Snow has slowed. Decided to venture out once more to reassess the whole "digging out my car" scenario.

12:00 pm. Technically, we still have one hour left of our Blizzard Warning. I've discovered even more snow than there was earlier today, probably around 25 inches, maybe even 26 now. We may see another inch fall before the day is done, so I'm safely saying my area of Somerville is going to total about 26 inches for this storm.

12:02 pm. Turning the corner to my building's lot, I also notice there is more snow on my car than there was earlier this morning. Strange how that works.

12:03 pm. Shovel in hand, I optimistically approach. I mean, the front of my car really doesn't look that bad at all.

12:04 pm. I rapidly realize even a non-injured human being would be destroyed at the prospect of digging this car out. Especially since there is zero place to go with the snow covering my car. The snow is higher than my car. My car is in a drift that is almost the height of ME. 

12:05 pm. I take some pictures, then turn to go back inside, defeated. Alas, dear car, you'll have to remain buried until I can think up some way to get you out while not spraining my knee all over again.

Boston Blizzard check-in #10:

1:10 pm. Snow appears to have stopped.

1:25 pm. I've discovered Somerville's "official" snow total is 28". Sweet!

1:55 pm. First sounds of snowblowers! Alas, not for my own driveway. For the one across the street. But still, it brings hope.

2:27 pm. Strange engine noises from outside. Looked out to discover that we have a plow stuck in the snow on our street. Yes, that is correct. The PLOW is stuck on our street. I think this has cemented my decision to remain a hermit for the duration of the weekend.

So that's it! The storm has passed, and now all that's left is to clean up. I'm sad to have missed the THUNDERSNOW, but experiencing a record-breaking blizzard was still a fun adventure, even for a born-and-raised Michigan girl. Hope my other Northeast friends made it through with power and minimal damages! 

And hey, just as I'm wrapping this up minutes before sunset, I see the first sunrays of the day shining through. Tomorrow should be beautiful!  

Friday, February 8, 2013


I think my greatest disappointment of the day so far is discovering that THUNDERSNOW is technically two words. But for the purposes of this blog, I will continue as if I'd never learned that little fact.


It's just what it sounds like: thunder, during a snowstorm. And it's pretty rare, too. Snowstorms need to be really big for thunder and lightning to occur.

Just how big?

Well, thunder happens when lightning happens. Lightning happens when a pocket of warmer, moist air has colder air pushed over it. This is a result of the turbulence experienced in storms, and when it happens, the warmer air rises up through the colder air, creating drafts.

This can usually only happen in the warmer months of the year, so to have it happen in a winter storm means the storm must be HUGE. There's no decreed size it must be, but since there's so little warm air in the winter, it's gotta be big enough for a large patch of warm air to be possible, such as in today's upcoming massive blizzard event, Nemo. Often, this can happen near oceans, where warmer air is more common in the winter months.

How does the thunder happen?

Thunder is the sound of lightning. Specifically, it's the sonic boom the lightning creates when it rapidly heats the atmosphere around it.

Lightning itself happens because of that discrepancy in air. The warm, moist air rises through the cooler, drier air, and the tiny rising ice particles and water droplets collide with newly condensing moisture inside a cloud, knocking electrons loose. The electrons build up at the base of the cloud, where most the impacts happened. So the bottom of a cloud becomes negatively charged from the extra electrons, while the top part (which you may have deduced has fewer electrons, since they got knocked loose) is more positively charged. Our planet is positively charged, too, by comparison.

And when you have unbalanced charges (such as the negative base of the cloud versus the more positive top of the cloud and/or planet below), the charges balance themselves. Positive charges may move up towards the cloud, creating a burst of electrical energy that we call lightning.

Will we get THUNDERSNOW today?

That, I can't answer. Many meteorologists are predicting so, but we won't know for sure until the storm's actually happening.

I really, really hope we do, though. *geeks out*

Friday, February 1, 2013

NASA's Day of Remembrance

Today, NASA remembers their fallen.

Ten years ago, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart upon reentry. I was 17, and remember listening to a news report on the radio as my family drove to visit our grandparents. We all got very quiet as we realized what they were saying. I have to admit, I first thought they were discussing Challenger and was confused as to why they kept saying "when the astronauts were in the midst of reentry". Challenger exploded upon launch, that much I knew, despite it actually happening when I was only a few months old and far too young to understand at the time.

But then, at 17, I finally did come to understood the crushing sadness that had been experienced January 28th, 1986. A few days past Challenger's anniversary in 2003, the unthinkable happened again. Such an event is a shock to the system, and I sincerely hope it isn't one that will occur again in my lifetime, or at any point in the future, though I know that's a lot to wish for.

Astronauts represent the best of us. The bravest. The smartest. The fittest. They are not just national heroes, but international heroes. To lose symbols like that is hard on everybody. But these people weren't just symbols. The people involved in these disasters--Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia--had families and friends who grieved not for a lost astronaut, but for their lost loved one.

All I can hope is for those who lost someone special that day, that they take some comfort in knowing what an effect each of those people had on all of us, and how much we each dearly wish it hadn't ended as it did.

May these brave souls rest in peace among the stars.