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February 19, 2013

Looking up

Russia scientists call for action after space rock blast

MOSCOW — As Russian authorities searched Saturday for remnants of the space object that startled residents of the southern Ural Mountain region a day earlier, scientists called its shock wave a loud warning that they hoped would inspire action to prevent potential catastrophes.

“When a small piece of rock would fall on the Earth 100 years ago, it could have caused minimal damage and would have stayed largely undetected, but Friday’s accident fully demonstrated how vulnerable the technological civilization of today has become,” Vladimir Lipunov, head of the Space Monitoring Laboratory with Moscow State University, said in an interview.

“It is high time Russia should start heavily investing in building an advanced space danger monitoring and warning system, and above that, a system capable of destroying such super bombs falling on us from the skies,” he added.

The scientist’s remarks echoed concern displayed by government officials. “Today neither Russia nor the United States is capable of shooting down objects from outer space,” tweeted Dmitry Rogozin, vice premier in charge of the nation’s defense industry.

What NASA described as a “tiny asteroid” wreaked havoc in the densely populated and highly industrialized Chelyabinsk region early Friday, its shock wave resulting in injuries to more than 1,100 people and costing millions of dollars in damage to buildings and disrupted phone and Internet communications.

The massive sonic boom damaged 3,000 houses, 34 hospitals and clinics, and 360 schools, as well as several businesses, officials said. At least three hockey games were canceled because of damage to the local rink.

Regional Gov. Mikhail Yurevich told reporters Saturday that damage exceeded $33 million but that 30 percent of the windows broken by the shock wave had already been replaced. About 20,000 municipal employees, emergency workers and volunteers worked round the clock to fix the windows in a region where the overnight temperature fell to minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Police have collected several small pieces of a black rock-like substance believed to be from the space object that broke apart as it exploded over the area, Interfax reported. Divers finished their initial inspection of Chebarkul Lake, about 40 miles west of Chelyabinsk, but found no traces of the object, a big chunk of which was believed to have fallen into the lake, breaking the thick ice.

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