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Debunking the story about the Russian meteor event

This Friday, about 15 hours apart, two rare events occured:

  1. A 15 meters meteor exploded above Russia
  2. A 50 meters meteorite missed Earth by less than 20,000 miles

Astronomers claim that both events are unrelated, because the meteorites in question were flying in opposite directions (South to North vs. North to South).

Here I claim that the 2 events are related, and that indeed, we are dealing with two fragments of the same space rock (the Russian explosion is NOT a test nuke from some rogue entity).

1. The probabilities do not make sense

The first event is said to happen every 100 years. The second every 40 years. Thus, if unrelated, the chance that (1) and (2) occur on a same year is 0.025%. The chance that they occur on a same day is 0.000068%. The chance that in your lifetime, you see such a coincidence is about 75 times higher. Now the chance that any kind of extremely rare event occur during your lifetime is actually very high, but that's another story.

One might suspect that some of the above numbers are wrong: maybe 15, 50, 40 or 100 is wrong, thus making this coincidence far more likely than it seems at first glance. However, I believe that these numbers are accurate enough to make the probability incredibly small, and I persist with my belief that indeed, the two events are thus related. Read below for my explanation.

2. Look at the graph below

The fact that both rocks were flying in total opposite directions actually makes perfect sense! Below A and B represent respectively the smaller and larger space rocks. Metorites are known to break due to tidal (gravitional) forces when approaching large bodies (Sun or Jupiter - or it might have happened long ago).

The graph speaks for itself.

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Comment by Arne Stockman on April 11, 2013 at 8:47am

There is no point in using statistics to prove that something actually happened is so unlikely that it has not happened.

Unlikely things happen all the time.


Comment by Robert Vanderbei on April 8, 2013 at 12:09pm

The Moon has no atmosphere.   The breakup is caused by the atmosphere.

It is well known that most stars are part of multi-star systems.  

It is well known that the famous meteor showers (e.g., Perseid, Leonid, etc.) are large piles of small particles that broke off from a comet on an earlier flyby of the Sun.   Hence, the idea that asteroids can come in pairs (or more) is not strange at all.

Comment by Vincent Granville on April 8, 2013 at 11:58am

Could the Russian meteor be a military test by Russia, China or North Korea (or some other country), e.g. to test a new type of rocket? If indeed this is the case, it's a success (from an military intelligence point of view) since everybody believes it's a meteor. On a different note, do large meteors usually break up into multiple fragments before hitting a planet? It would be easy to estimate the probability of break-up, for an average meteor, by looking at crater distribution on Moon. I'm sure the chance of break-up depends on a few factors, including velocity, angle of attack, meteorite composition, and the gravitational field and atmosphere of the target planet.

After all, people believed for a long time that binary stars were rare, now evidence suggests that it's the opposite. The same could be true for "binary meteorites", although I think it should be easy to either prove or disprove this fact.

Comment by Robert Vanderbei on April 8, 2013 at 9:54am

A trick that only has legs for a day or maybe two is not a very good trick.   Even rogue organizations are smart enough to know that.  So, there's really no worries in this regard.

Comment by Mirko Krivanek on April 8, 2013 at 9:40am

A risk associated with these meteors is a concurrent man-made nuclear attack against a target city by a rogue organization, taking place at the same time as the meteor event, to trick military into thinking that it's just a natural explosion (a meteorite with two fragments).

Comment by Robert Vanderbei on April 4, 2013 at 2:49pm

Thanks David.

Comment by David J Corliss on April 4, 2013 at 2:09pm

To Robert - although I did begin with your quote, I really was writing a general comment. For example, while you certainly have not suggested a NASA conspiracy, others have. 

Continuing now in general again - while Robert's credentials are far superior to mine - this should not be underestimated! - may I mention that I did not recommend my credentials but instead commended people to the data. In science, the only accepted authority on any subject is data. Accordingly, Robert's request for confidence intervals is very well taken. I don't have this information; I will research it tonight.

I'll stand by my disappointment with the general level of conversation. Lots of talk but too little fact checking, at least for my liking anyway. For my part, I will look into Robert's important questions (uncertainties for the orbital paths and details of the composition of the two asteroids) tonight and post later.

Comment by Robert Vanderbei on April 4, 2013 at 1:57pm

No observable data at all?  My estimate is derived as follows.  The interarrival times are exponentially distributed (with the mean depending on size).  My estimate of the mean of this distribution is based on the historical record.  Have you forgotten about Tunguska and other such events?

Comment by John Morrow on April 4, 2013 at 1:49pm

My last word on the subject since I don't see any sign that there is any point discussing this further.

It seems disingenuous to look at the literal mountain of documented, data-driven analysis that leads to the NASA conclusion (independently supported, as David points out, by every other analysis using actual data from the event) and suggest that you find it unconvincing because of the lack of a probability of error when you can't calculate the probability of error in your own theory because your theory is based on no observable data at all.

If you find NASA's mass of evidence unconvincing, how on earth can you possibly justify believing an alternative theory with no evidence behind it at all?  It's like saying, "The probability of life evolving the way it has on earth is astronomically tiny, therefore I think it was done with magic".

Comment by Robert Vanderbei on April 4, 2013 at 1:29pm

(1) The compositions aren't "known to be different".   There is evidence that they are different.   I asked for confidence intervals.

(2) The orbits have been calculated.   Yes.   But with very uncertain and imprecise initial conditions (at least for the Russian meteor).  Also, the close-encounter event could have been thousands of years ago.  The "high precision" you claim probably does not extend back thousand of years.

(3) The article cited plots the orbits without mention of the uncertainty in their initial conditions.   This is my complaint.

I am not an asteroid researcher.  But, I do have credentials.  For example, I am a member the Astrophysics Department here at Princeton ( and I have written  about a dozen papers that are published in the Astrophysical Journal (the premier journal in astrophysics) and the Astronomical Journal (the other premier journal).  Some of these papers are on the n-body problem.

(4) I'm not suggesting any NASA conspiracy.  I can't even imagine why you think that.

(5) This is a blog about data and analytics, i.e., statistics.  I'm trying to focus the discussion on the lack of statistical analysis in the article you refer to and seem to believe unquestioningly.

(6) I have said repeatedly that I'm willing to change my mind.  But, at the moment, without any credible estimate the type I error, I see no reason to switch.

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