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February 15th…

skyfell

Well, what a strange old, exciting and frustrating day yesterday was. It had everything. Looking back on it this morning I’m not entirely sure I didn’t dream or imagine the whole thing.

It started off in the usual way – with me waking up, yawning, feeding our naggy cat and them reaching for my phone to check what had been happening in the world overnight on Twitter. By “world” I mean, of course, the world of astronomy and space exploration, not the wide world. I used to check what had happened in that by checking the news sites, but dear god that’s so depressing, full of stories of horse lasagne and celebrities and other nonsense, so now I go straight to Twitter to see if there are any new images of Comet ISON doing the rounds, or if Comet PANSTARRS has magically brightened, or if Curiosity has found another ‘shiny thing’ on Mars for the web’s nutcases and fruit loops to obsess over.

So, yesterday morning, I went down, waaaay down to the bottom of my Twitter updates, and soon saw a Tweet talking about a “bright meteor” seen in Russia. Hmm, ok, no big deal, bright meteors are seen all the time. I wondered if anyone had managed to take a picture, that would be interesting, but if they hadn’t, well, no worries.

Then I scrolled up a bit more… another meteor tweet… then another calling it a “fireball”… then more and more, each one more excited and breathless and disbelieving than the last. Soon I had realised that Something Big Had Happened, something which was going to dominate the news that day -

Hang on… wasn’t today the day that a big asteroid was going to fly past Earth? One that had no chance of hitting us?

Had they got that wrong?

No, surely not. “They” were experts, the same experts I keep telling people have to be trusted because they have brains the sizes of planets and computers which are frighteningly powerful. No, this was something else. This was something different, surely. But what a hell of a coincidence…

A little more scrolling rewarded me with a link to an image…

o-METEOR-SHOWER-570

…bloody hellllllll….

Then another…

002461-russian-meteor

Then I found a Tweet linking to a YouTube clip, so with the now well-fed cat sitting on my chest, wanting to play, I went to the clip and started it playing -

Dear god… look at that! A huge, fat, churning, billowing white vapour trail painted across a breathtakingly icy blue sky. Split in two? Two trails side by side? It certainly looked like it. TWO pieces had come down together? How likely was -

Then the explosion. The sonic boom. The camera spinning wildly as the person holding it was battered by a shock wave from above, a shock wave which shattered the windows all around them, covering the snowy ground with deadly shards of glittering broken glass. As more, smaller, more distant explosions thudded and whumped in the background, like an artillery bombardment, and alarms blared deafeningly, the camera straightened again, panning along the length of the vapour trail…

It was like a scene from “Cloverfield,” and I’ll admit that for a moment I wondered if I was watching a very realistic, very clever hoax. It looked real, but the chances of something like this happening, and someone filming it, seemed, well, a bit unlikely…

But then I watched another YouTube clip, and another and another. Each snippet of film, whether shot from a moving car driving down a road or a static webcam looking out across a town square showed the same thing – a stupidly, stupidly bright fireball crossing the achingly-blue sky, sliding across it, gliding across it, leaving behind a line of burning gold which quickly thickened and fattened and clotted into a milk white trail of smoke and cloud. That was all some showed, in soundtrack-free silence. Others had sound, the sound of windows shattering and splintering and building alarms wailing and car alarms shrieking after a chest-compressing detonation farm, far above. It was quite incredible, and just watching it on my phone’s screen set my pulse racing and left me feeling more than a little scared.

And that was how it started. The Day The Sky Fell.

Bizarrely, it took the TV news here in the UK a good couple of hours to latch on tothe story. They were too busy reporting on the latest discoveries of horse meat in processed meals supposed to be made of beef, and the shooting of that paralympic sprinter’s girlfriend in South Africa. Eventually they caught hold of the story (“We’re just getting reports…” No! You’re not! You had the reports HOURS ago! Wake up!!!!), and began speculating wildly, of course. So I turned them off and went back to Twitter for my news. It’s more reliable nowadays.

In yet another bizarre coincidence I had been asked to go on my local BBC Radio station at just after 8pm, to talk about the Carlisle castle-sized asteroid which was going to fly very close to – but harmlessly past – Earth later in the day, so I was able to slot the#Russianmeteor into my piece at the very start – incredibly, the presenter didn’t have a clue what I was on about! I had to tell *him* what had happened!

By lunchtime the picture was clearer. A fair-sized chunk of space debris – a piece of rocky asteroid, most likely – had streaked through the atmosphere above Russia, leaving a spectacular trail hundreds of miles long in the air before exploding high above it, sending a blast pressure wave down to the ground, shattering windows, blowing out doors, and terrifying people across many hundreds of miles. Although there were a few scattered reports of buildings having been damaged, that damage appeared to have been caused by the same blast wave which had destroyed so many windows, and not by actual pieces of falling space rock. A hole had been found in an icy lake beneath the meteor’s trajectory, and there were suspicions that meteorites had fallen into the waters but no way of proving it, yet. But the internet was groaning under the weight of pictures of fallen walls, shattered windows and, of course, that ghostly, now iconic smoke trail cutting across the azure Russian sky…

Looking at those images, and watching the videos again and again and again on the TV and YouTube, several thoughts came to mind. First – bloody hell, we’ve been lucky. So, so lucky. If that asteroid fragment had exploded closer to the ground, those towns and cities might have been flattened, like those trees in Tunguska in 1908. People would have died if that had happened, many people. It would have looked like a scene from ARMAGEDDON, with wrecked buildings and bodies.

Then I thought, rather selfishly probably, how amazing it was that we live in this internet age, this YouTube age, this Twitter age, when a story like this is being shared with the world literally within minutes. Ten years ago things would have been very different. Today, when something like this happens, it’s recorded, hashtagged, posted and shared with the world within MINUTES, that’s just incredible, isn’t it? It genuinely is a small world now.

But my over-riding thought was this: Dear god, what must it have been like to have been UNDER that? To have witnessed it? To have looked up on that cold, crisp morning and see a second Sun crawling across the sky before the hand of God slapped down on you from on high, breaking every window around you and leaving your ears ringing and your heart thudding in your chest as you stood there, numb, literally wondering if the world was ending..?

I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to be walking up my own street, carrying my bags of shopping from Iceland and Home Bargains, and to see a fireball like that skating across the sky, to see shadows lengthening and swinging around me as the fireball etched across the heavens, to see the world go white as it exploded, and to stand there for a minute or so, in calm, in quiet, gathering my thoughts, looking up at a cream-white vapour trail cutting the sky in half above me before the shock wave struck and the windows of the shops around me exploded outwards in a blizzard of tinkling, twinkling glass shards…

Next time it happens – and there will be a next time – it might be here, where I live. Or it might be where you live. Chances are it will be where *someone* lives. And that should make our politicians get off their fat arses and take the prospects of that seriously.

By teatime the #Russianmeteor was still in the news, but was slipping back down the league table of interest. But by then I had other things on my mind myself anyway. My astronomical society – the Eddington Astronomical Society – had scheduled one of our increasingly-popular Moonwatch events for yesterday evening, and by teatime the sky, which had been cloudy all day, was suspiciously and spectacularly clear, so a good 45 minutes ahead of the event’s 6.30 start time I went to the Brewery Arts Centre to set up my telescope and start showing people the Moon.

The plan, as usual, was to show people the Moon’s craters, seas and mountains through a variety of our telescopes, plus Jupiter and some of its moons. We’d have a chance to see a very high and bright pass of the International Space Station too, just after 7pm. There was also a very, very faint chance that we might be able to see the headline-hogging asteroid 2012DA14 as it skimmed past Earth, just 17,000 miles or so above our atmosphere, but we weren’t counting on that.

It was a brilliant evening, it really was. We must have had eight, maybe nine different telescopes there, and by the time we all packed up – only because mist and cloud rolled in – we must have “shown the sights” to more than 70 people, young and old, fascinated and just curious alike. We saw the space station in all its glory, arcing up towards and then beneath the Moon and Jupiter and then above and away from Orion. Little did we know that asĀ  we were watching the space station, someone onboard the orbital laboratory was watching us, floating by a window and taking our picture…

BDLTixtCIAAuF-1.jpg large

How fantastic is that?! :-)

So, yes, a fantastic night. And although we didn’t get to see the asteroid, visitors to the Moonwatch were able to see and hold a piece OF asteroid; I took along a large piece of the famous Canyon Diablo meteorite which blasted Meteor Crater out of the Arizona desert 50,000 years ago. The kids who hefted it in their tiny hands thought it was *brilliant*, and the adults were pretty impressed too!

Back home after the Moonwatch there was time to reflect a little on the day’s events. It had been a day of ludicrous and terrifying coincidence. One asteroid had raced past Earth, exactly and comfortingly as predicted, while another, smaller one had essentially hit us, blowing up in the atmosphere just a hair’s breadth above the ground in a populated country. We had had two near misses in less than 24 hours, thus proving the Earth really is a target in a cosmic shooting gallery. That’s a very sobering thought, isn’t it? Like I said to one of the visitors to our Moonwatch, if we could actually look up on a clear night and SEE all the bits of ice and rock and metal spinning around and past us, we would never set foot out of the house again, it would be bowel-looseningly terrifying.

We were all given a sobering and timely reminder of our place in the universe yesterday, and of how important we don’t just sit on our hands, here on Earth, but get OUT there, and explore, and find other places to live so that all our civilisation’s eggs aren’t in this one fragile basket. If that rock that exploded over Russia had been ten times bigger, or just half a dozen times bigger, things might have turned out very differently indeed.

The Sky fell yesterday, but amazingly the only damage done was to windows and walls. Hearts were stopped, pulses were jolted, faces and hands were cut, blood was spilled, but no-one died. Next time – and we might be decades, years or just days away from that Next Time, we have no idea – we might not be so lucky.

That #Russianmeteor was the universe giving us a well-deserved kick up the arse. It was the universe pulling away our nice cosy duvet as we sprawl in bed watching “X Factor” or “American Idol” or “The Kardashians” and shouting at us “Get up! Stop lazing about! DO something!”

I hope we do.

UPDATE: I couldn’t help wondering how big the “smoke trail” left behind by the Russian meteor was, so I did a bit of research. The most often quoted length seems to be 320km, which sounds impressive but doesn’t actually mean anything does it? I mean, how can you visualise that? What IS 320km long? So I used Google Earth and Photoshop to go back in time and change history so the Russian meteor had actually been a British meteor, and put the smoke trail “over” my part of the world…

UK track 1

UK track 2

GULP…!!!

And according to a report in a British newspaper today, if the meteoroid had entered the atmosphere just a couple of hours earlier, it *would* have been my part of the world beneath it. Wow…

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