A meteor that exploded over Russia in February was 20 metres in diameter and caused a blast equivalent to 544,000 tonnes of TNT, according to scientists studying the event.
The space rock blew apart 30 kms above the city of Chelyabinsk, briefly outshining the sun and inflicting severe burns on a number of observers below.
It was the largest object to hit the Earth since the Tunguska event of 1908, when an exploding comet or asteroid destroyed 2000 square kilometres of Siberian forest.
“If humanity does not want to go the way of the dinosaurs, we need to study an event like this in detail.”
Analysis showed that the rock was a common type known as a “chondrite” – the kind most likely to cause a major extinction event in the future.
Professor Qing-Zhu Yin, from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California at Davis, US, said the meteor strike was a “wake-up call”.
“If humanity does not want to go the way of the dinosaurs, we need to study an event like this in detail,” he said.
His team said the Chelyabinsk object entered the Earth’s atmosphere at just over 19 kilometres per second, slightly faster than had previously been reported.
Three quarters of the rock evaporated in the explosion, said the researchers, whose findings are reported in the journal Science.
Most of the rest of the object became a glowing orange dust cloud and only a small fraction – still weighing 4000 to 6000kg – fell to the ground.
The largest single fragment, weighing about 650kg, was recovered from the bed of Lake Chebarkul in October.
Shock waves from the airburst smashed windows, rattled buildings, and knocked people off their feet, more than 1200 of whom attended hospital.
Researchers visiting villages in the area found a region of shock-wave damage extending some 80 kms on either side of the meteor’s trajectory path.
The object may have come from the Flora asteroid family in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. But the chunk that exploded over Chelyabinsk is not thought to have originated in the asteroid belt itself, the experts believe.