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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 David J Corliss on February 18, 2013 at 8:52am

Debunking the debunking....

The graph that "speaks for itself" is incorrect: meteors absolutely do not follow the path described in A. They don't follow the path desscribed in B, either, which is perfectly straight.

Meteors - whether hits of near-misses - follow a path described by a hyperbola. A careful look at the pictures provided by NASA reflect this. (I don't think think there is enough detail in the pictures to positively identify it as a hyperbola but one can see that it is curved, not straight, and is an open curve.) In no case will the meteor wrap around Earth, as is incorrectly shown in the graph.

(Sorry for the credentials in this case, but I think it's relevent here.)
David J Corliss, PhD
University of Toledo / Department of Physics and Astronomy  
(But it doesn't take a PhD in astrophysics like me to see this - celestial mechanics isn't even my specialty - anyone with a BS in physics and / or astronomy should done this problem.)

Comment by Robert Vanderbei on February 17, 2013 at 7:17pm

There is no complete all-sky monitoring system that would detect every possible threat.   It's not a conspiracy.   It's just lack of resources.


Comment by Vincent Granville on February 17, 2013 at 4:16pm

@Robert: Thanks for correcting my computations. I made them late at night yesterday, and the purpose of my discussion is to have people use their brain and think - even if that means coming with a rebuttal to my suggestion - rather than blindly believing journalists.

Newspapers have been very quick to write that the two events were independent. While they could be independent for some reasons (e.g. because the 40 and 100 years are indeed wrong because it's based on old data when most small space rocks were not detected at all), it is also possible that newspapers and astronomers might be wrong, maybe because the phenomenon is not fully understood despite claims to the contrary, or maybe because they lie.

Claiming that such an improbable coincidence is indeed a coincidence can serve two goals: for the newspapers, increasing page views and thus revenue. For the NASA, making us believe that meteors are far more numerous than we think, to try to get more funding for meteor monitoring programs.

I'm not saying this is the case - just a possibility. After all, cigarette manufacturers spent billions to convince us (as long as they could) that lung cancer and smoking were coincidental. Likewise, drug manufacturers have lied in similar ways to keep highly profitable drugs on the market as long as they could. Global warming opponents have played the same game, and more recently, gun advocates claim not only that gun deaths are not related to gun ownership, but instead that gun ownership should indeed be increased (e.g. by forcing all teachers to be armed) to reduce gun deaths.

Comment by Robert Vanderbei on February 17, 2013 at 2:10pm

I agree that it seems unlikely that the two events happening on the same day is a coincidence.  But, there are two small errors in the analysis.

First:  The probability of the asteroid flyby is irrelevant since we are conditioning on that happening and we are assuming independence. The meteor event is said to happen about once in a hundred years. So, the probability that that event happened on the same day is 1/(100*365) = 0.000027. That's a very small number.  I'd be surprised if it proves to be a coincidence.

Second:  When converting from "per year" to "per day" you divided by 365. You should have divided by 365 squared. So, in the product of the two probabilities calculation, you should have come up with 0.00000019% not 0.000068% as claimed.

Comment by Todd Morris on February 17, 2013 at 8:01am

For the moment, NASA is presenting a very similar graphic for the asteroid path, Vincent.

I am still looking for the tracking coordinates of the meteor.

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