The last major asteroid to hit Earth destroyed 500 square kilometers — and it could have been much worse

Windows and doors shattered in Chelyabinsk, Russia after meteor explodes with the force of 40 Hiroshima bombs overheadChelyabinsk Drama Theater
  • The Chelyabinsk meteor exploded over Russia with a force of 40 Hiroshima nuclear bombs.
  • Damage stretched for 500 square kilometers, destroying 7,200 building and injuring over 1,400 people in its wake.
  • But it could have been even worse had it exploded closer to earth like the Tunguska event.
As many as 800 asteroids are hovering around Earth, posing many a risk.

Some are particularly dangerous like the Apophis asteroid — God of Chaos — that is supposed whiz past earth in 2029. There is another asteroid which is half the size of Mount Everest and is expected to pass by the planet in less than a year.

But, these are just the ones we know about.

In 2013, a space object entered the Earth’s atmosphere and exploded with such a force — equivalent to 440,000 tons of TNT — that it damaged buildings for 500 square kilometers. And, nobody saw it coming.


Chelyabinsk meteor

Dubbed the Chelyabinsk meteor after its point of impact in Russia, the house-sized asteroid was a ‘ cosmic wake-up call’, according to NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson.

The meteor exploded a mere 30 kilometers from the Earth’s surface over a region that was home to around a million people.


A picture taken of the Chelyabinsk meteor's smoke trail with the double plumes visible either side.Chelyabinsk Drama Theatre

The explosion was so bright — even 30 times brighter than the Sun for a moment — that it could be seen from a 100 kilometers away right before windows were shattered, doors were broken, walls were brought down and even whole factories collapsed.

The shock from the meteor resulted in a roof collapse over the warehouse section of a zinc factory in ChelyabinskWikimedia/Pospel A

Over 7,200 buildings expanding across six cities in Chelyabinsk were damaged by the effects of the blast.


Leftover glass shards after windows exploded in ChelyabinskChelyabinsk Drama Theater

Over 1,400 people were injured in the blast according to Russian authorities. The effects of the asteroid ranged from broken spines to ultra violet burns on their skin. Some people also reported temporary flash blindness from looking directly at the meteor.

The entire damage to Chelyabinsk in terms of monetary loss came up to around $33 million at the time, according to the oblast governor.

Thrice the size, four times the damage

The Chelyabinsk meteor exploded above the surface of the planet and was still able to inflict damage for miles.

Had the meteor actually crashed into the Earth — the resulting destruction would have been on a much larger scale.

The Tunguska meteor that hit the Earth in 1908 — the largest known natural object to enter the planet’s atmosphere ever — flattened 2,000 square kilometers of forest.

Impact of the Tunguska meteorNASA

Even though the difference in size between the two meteors is only around 45 meters, the damage was much greater since Tunguska disintegrated only 10 kilometers from the planet’s surface.

Size comparison of the Tunguska meteor (TM) and the Chelyabinsk meteor (CM) to the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State BuildingWikimedia/Phoenix CZE

So, instead of exploding with the energy of 440,000 tons — Tunguska dispelled around 15 megatons of TNT, which is 1,000 times the amount of energy of the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima.

It should be noted that there is some disagreement over the exact might of the explosion with supercomputer estimates stating that it was only around 3 megatons while a new study published in 2019 estimates it to be around 20-30 megatons.

The main difference between the two asteroid events was that with Chelyabinsk occurred in a highly populated region, the Tunguska event occurred in a sparsely populated area.

Tunguska and Chelyabinsk meteors aren’t the only examples of asteroids that hit Earth — they’re only the largest and the most recent, respectively. In 1930, asteroids are said to have exploded over the Curuca River in Brazil and an iron meteorite fell on the Sikhote Alin Mountains in 1947.

See also:
An asteroid nearly half the size of Mount Everest might be on a collision course for Earth in less than a year

Elon Musk says we have no defence against asteroid ‘God of Chaos'

What happens when an asteroid actually hits Earth
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