This article was originally published in the Bad Astronomy Newsletter by Phil Plait, an astronomer and science communicator, as well as a friend of Asteroid Day.
He writes his Bad Astronomy Newsletter three times a week at badastronomy.substack.com.
Ten years ago last week, on Thursday, February 14, 2013, I was sitting in my office at home wrapping up my day. It was around 10:00 p.m. or so, and I had been doing some more reading about the asteroid 2012 DA14 — a roughly 30-meter space rock that was going to pass by Earth the next day at the hair-raising distance of only 28,000 kilometers.
Much of the news coverage was pretty good (including, modestly, my own) but fearmongers were out in full force with sketchy YouTube videos and the other usual tauroid feces, so I was poking around looking at debunking it.
So you can imagine my frame of mind when, just as I was about to sign off the internet for the evening, I got a note from someone saying, hey, have you seen this? And it was a link to a YouTube video.
Clicking it wearily, I watched shaky camera footage showing a twilit sky. Suddenly, a brilliant blob appeared on one side, gaining brightness rapidly as it streaked across the sky and leaving a huge vapor trail behind it. Checking the video notes, it said it was from a city called Chelyabinsk, in Russia.
Pbbbbt, I remember thinking. I had just seen a handful of faked videos of exactly this kind of event, some of them cleverly done to fool people into thinking they were real. And with so much baloney being spread at that time about DA14, I was more than usually skeptical of this video.
Then I got a second note from a reader linking to a different video. This showed the same event but from a different angle. Like the first one it looked like it could maybe kinda sorta be real, but again my skepticism overruled that thought: One of the faked videos I had just watched showed a “meteor” coming in as seen from two different angles, applying parallax to the CGI to give it a whiff of sincerity. So again, I was unconvinced.
Then a third came. And a fourth. Um.
Still not convinced, but debating with myself about the authenticity, another video went up showing the view of a huge vapor trail, far larger than any airplane contrail, outside a building in the Russian morning. I was just about to marvel about how real that looked when suddenly the video erupted with an immense BOOM and the camera went wild, the sound of shattering and falling glass and people yelling.