UC Merced professor urges more meteor awareness

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 15, 2013 

— It is possible to track and know when a meteor is coming toward Earth, said a retired astronomy professor who teaches general education courses at UC Merced.

However, Wil Van Breugel said Friday that more money and research are needed to be able to do that so people aren't caught unaware and unprepared when an impact occurs.

On Friday morning, many Russians were caught off-guard by a bright and loud explosion when a meteor struck the Chelyabinsk region in Russia, leaving more than 1,000 people injured and many buildings damaged.

Most of the damage to buildings was from blown-out windows caused by the impact of the meteor, and most of the injuries to people were inflicted by the broken glass that was sent flying.

"I just hope they are taken more seriously now," Breugel said of meteors.

During a meteor explosion, a pressure wave is created in the air and it goes everywhere, which is why windows were blown out of buildings during Friday's incident, he said.

Breugel was surprised, not because it happened, but because of the timing. It happened hours before an asteroid safely passed Earth.

He said there's debate among scientists on whether the two may have been related. "I'm convinced they are not related," he said. "The orbits came in at a different angle."

Tunguska blast much larger

This was not the first time Russia was rattled by this kind of explosion, Breugel said. In 1908, a much larger explosion, believed to be caused by a meteor or comet, struck Tunguska.

"If that would have hit Merced, it would have been gone," he said.

The explosion Friday was a hundred times less energetic than the Tunguska event, Breugel said.

"The bigger they are, the more rare, but the more damage they do," he said.

Such events are more common than people think, Breugel said, but they usually happen in remote regions with few, if any, inhabitants. "The Earth is very big and most of it is covered by water," he said.

And the most common impacts are the small ones, he said. The Sacramento area saw one not too long ago, Breugel said.

"The smaller they are, the more often and the less damage" they cause, he said. "(Friday's) is the biggest one that we've had in hundreds of years."

The chances of a similar event happening again are very small, Breugel said.

Still, he hopes more people will pay attention to meteors after Friday's incident.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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