Meteor explodes in fiery blaze over Cyprus: How unusual?

Meteors are common. Sometimes they hit Earth. But given that 70 percent of the planet is covered with water, most of these go unnoticed by humans.

What appears to be a meteor burst across the nighttime sky in Cyprus early on Friday, flashing and thundering so powerfully overhead that the ground shook, according to reports from residents.

A Cyprus Geological Department official, Iordanis Demetriades, said there's no indication that the object hit Earth. It probably "exploded in the sky," he said. Those living in the Troodos Mountain range said they saw green-white lights in the sky around 1 a.m., and then heard large blasts, according to police.

This type of near-Earth encounter with a space object may seem rare (and terrifying), but is actually quite common. NASA has identified more than 13,500 asteroids or comets of all sizes circulating within 30 million miles of Earth. On average, it tracks 30 meteorite impacts annually, according to Forbes. But given that 70 percent of the planet's surface is covered with water, most of these go unnoticed by humans.

Though some do.

In 2013 a meteor the size of a bus caused havoc when it shot in a fiery blaze over the Russian Urals city of Chelyabinsk, exploding several miles above the Earth with a blast that shattered windows, damaged buildings, and injured more than 1,000 people.

This Russian incident was followed by another on Feb. 6, 2016, when the second largest fireball crashed into the ocean off Brazil, releasing the same amount of energy as 13,000 tons of TNT. The Chelyabinsk explosion was much bigger: 500,000-TNT-tons-worth, as The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time.

Also this February, a small blue object dropped from the sky in southern India and crashed into the ground, shooting out debris that killed a bus driver standing nearby. Local officials weren’t sure if it was a meteorite, a chunk of a satellite, or other space debris.

Despite these recent incidents, the chances of such catastrophic events are very low, says NASA.  Space debris strikes Earth every year, almost always with no damage. Only a handful of meteorites have even damaged property, and prior to the incident in India, there were no records of a meteor impact ever killing a human. (Though, importantly, a massive asteroid or comet plummeted to Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs some 65.5 million years ago.)

Just in case, though, Tulane University environmental sciences professor Stephen A. Nelson has calculated the odds of getting killed by a meteorite at about 1 in 250,000 – much lower chances than dying in a tornado (1 in 60,000). On the other hand, the chances of getting killed by a meteorite are much higher than winning the PowerBall. The chances of that happening? 1 in more than 195 million.

"We live in a solar system that's full of asteroids and meteorites. There's no avoiding them. Thousands of tons of meteorites fall onto the Earth every year, far more than we can even keep track of. So, try not to worry too much," Nikolai Zheleznov, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, told the Monitor in 2013. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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