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After meteor strike, Russian experts reflect

By Sergei L. Loiko, MOSCOW (LA Times): In the wake of what many now humorously call “the alien bombardment” of the Russian industrial Urals, divers Saturday finished their initial inspection of the Chebarkul Lake 60 miles west of Chelyabinsk but found no traces of the space object that exploded Friday morning over the region, Interfax reported.

What experts agree was a meteor or a small asteroid wreaked havoc in the densely populated and highly industrialized Urals, injuring hundreds, causing millions of dollars worth of material damage, disrupting phone and Internet communication and prompting residents and leading scientists to draw new lessons from the small Chelyabinsk Armageddon.

“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 Saturday.

“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.”

The Chelyabinsk region is traditionally one of the most important military-industrial regions of Russia, where you “can’t drive a mile without passing a defense or a nuclear industry installation,” the scientist said.

“We should be thankful to fate that this meteor in fact was a blessing in disguise and instead of destroying a significant part of Russia with quite dire consequences to the rest of the world, it sent us a clear warning signal by simply blowing up a bunch of windows and lightly injuring over one thousand people,” Lipunov added.

The scientist’s stern remark echoed the first signs of concern displayed by the government. “Today neither Russia nor the United States is capable of shooting down objects from outer space,” Dmitry Rogozin, a vice premier in charge of the military industrial complex, wrote in his Twitter account.

“On Monday I will present to [Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev] an objective picture of the Urals event and proposals on possibilities to register the danger of the Earth’s coming close to ‘aliens’ and prevent it in the future.”

Lipunov runs a monitoring system of four 15.7-inch telescopes deployed across Russia from Kislovodsk in the South to Vlagoveshchensk in the Far East, operated from Moscow, and proudly declared Saturday that they managed to grab a high-quality two-hour video of 2012-DA14 Asteroid passing close to the Earth overnight.

His lab has managed to detect and register about 200 new bodies in outer space, but observers are unable to provide warnings asteroid dangers, and Lipunov laments the lack of funding and the loss of a broader monitoring system that the Soviet Union possessed. Even if his lab can detect some large asteroids in advance, it is useless with smaller asteroids and meteors, which can also pose a grave risk when traveling at high speed, Lipunov said.

Many Russian experts agree that such a system should be reinstated and equipped with modern 59-inch telescopes like those in the United Sates, because Russia can’t rely on the U.S. help when such dangers arise.

“Americans can, for example, detect a dangerous object and calculate that it can fall somewhere in the Urals, but that doesn’t concern them,” Alexander Bagrov, a senior researcher with the Astronomy Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences told Russia-24, a federal news television network. “They can pass it over in silence.”

Bagrov spoke in favor of creating an early warning system of satellites monitoring space for signs of approaching danger instead of restoring a global land- and sea-based system. Lipunov argues that a space system would be more expensive and may take a decade to install — and even then it would not be as reliable as an Earth-based system with powerful telescopes.

As scientists argue about ways to save the globe, 20,000 municipal workers, emergency crews and hundreds of volunteers have been working overnight to repair thousands of broken windows in the Chelyabinsk region, where the nighttime temperature fell to minus 4 Fahrenheit.

Regional Gov. Mikhail Yurevich told reporters Saturday that the material damage to the region already exceeds $33 million. He said that 30% of about 100 square meters of broken windows had already been replaced.

The explosion damaged 3,000 residential houses, 34 hospitals and clinics, 360 schools and kindergartens as well as several businesses. High school and university students received a day off Saturday. At least three hockey games were canceled in town because of damage to the local rink.

Police have collected several small pieces of a black rock-like substance believed to be remnants of the meteor, Interfax reported.

In the meantime local residents congratulate one another on surviving “the Apocalypse” and relive the high moments of Friday panic.

“Are we being attacked?” screamed a construction worker as he captured on video the meteor’s explosion in the sky, footage he put on the Web the same day. “No way am I going to work today, no way!”

“I am being bombed from outer space by some superior force,” one user posted on his social media account, recalling his immediate reaction.

“It was a fantastic feeling how we were all united by our common [death], as everybody was sharing with everybody else how scared he was and how he had his pants full,” another user wrote.

“Somebody is screaming that there are many meteors all around,” another user wrote. “Some woman is screaming that she doesn’t want to die. Somebody says that the main load is yet to come and we will be all done in. Some bloke pretends to be a serious expert and says that Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, Novosibirsk have all been subjected to a meteor strike but [the government] is keeping silent to not sow panic.”

“As these people were united in their horror and their panic on Friday in the Chelyabinsk region,” said Lipunov, “so the governments of the most developed countries should unite in creating a system of warning and protection from surprise attack from space.”

But Russians are enterprising people, and many found a way to make money on the incident, Chelyabinsk blogger Alexander Fazanov wrote.

“Residents of Chelyabinsk are already offering their services to put in window glass, sell meteorite pieces on the Internet, and the craftiest … themselves break their windows to get a monetary compensation from the authorities for nothing,” he wrote.

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