When a small asteroid fell to Earth over the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013, the speeding space rock exploded midair and created a shock wave powerful enough to damage thousands of buildings and injure more than 1,200 people. The blast from the Chelyabinsk explosion shattered glass windows up to 58 miles (93 kilometers) away.
Just in time for Asteroid Day (June 30), NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office has released a supercomputer simulation of a Chelyabinsk-like asteroid burning up in Earth's atmosphere. Simulations such as this one "help first responders and other agencies to identify and make better informed decisions for how best to defend against life-threatening asteroid events," NASA officials said in a statement.
Using the Pleiades supercomputer at NASA's Ames Research Facility in California's Silicon Valley, researchers are modeling hypothetical asteroid-impact scenarios like this one to learn more about how dangerous space rocks crumble into pieces after entering Earth's atmosphere. These supercomputer simulations harness NASA's Cart3D aerodynamic design software and the ALE3D modeling software developed by Lawrence Livermore National Lab. [Gallery: Chelyabinsk Explosion of 2013]
"The NASA team was able to run large-scale simulations of the Chelyabinsk asteroid event on Pleiades to produce many impact scenarios quickly, because Cart3D is dozens of times faster than typical 3-D numerical modeling used for aerodynamic analysis," NASA officials said in the statement. "The detailed simulations allowed the team to model the fluid flow that occurs when asteroids melt and vaporize as they break up in the atmosphere."
Experts with the Asteroid Threat Assessment Project at NASA's Ames Research Facility share this research with universities, national labs and government agencies around the world to help people come up with plans for dealing with the threat of asteroid impacts.
Learn more about the Chelyabinsk event from the Science@NASA video series:
Editor's Note: Space.com senior producer Steve Spaleta contributed to this report.