Required reading: meteorites

The crazy meteor strike in Russia was a reminder of our immense vulnerability. So what exactly are meteors, did a giant meteor really kill the dinosaurs and how likely is it, that one day, we'll go the same way?

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The meteorite that crashed into Russia's Ural Mountains on Friday left thousands of broken windows and more than 900 injured people in its wake.

It also left us with a renewed appreciation of our precarious place in the universe. Scientists say that intergalactic rock of the kind that fell over Russia is common; another, larger rock, the asteroid 2012 DA14, came within 27,350 kilometres of Earth (a near miss in galactic terms) on Friday.

Would it be possible for an asteroid strike to wipe out life on Earth? And, if so, what are the chances?

The meteor that entered the Earth's atmosphere on Friday weighed around 10 tonnes and most likely had a diameter of around tens of metres. Read Tony Hallam's Catastrophes and Lesser Calamites to learn how, 65 million years ago, a rock about 15 kilometres large crashed into the Earth, triggering multiple volcanoes and throwing up dust clouds that caused a perpetual night for 10 years. Dinosaurs were extinct within a few thousand years.

Could the same happen to us? In short, yes, says Donald Yeomans in Near Earth Objects. While Nasa's Near Earth Object Program scans the skies, it's thought that we still know nothing about many near-Earth rocks that are large enough to end civilisation if they strike our planet. On the up side, such strikes are thought to occur only once every 500,000 years.

About 40,000 tonnes of space rock fall to Earth every year, most in the form of harmless dust and small meteorites that leave behind only a beautiful trail in the night sky. The Field Guide to Meteors and Meteoritestells you everything you need to know if you fancy a bit of meteor spotting.

If you're more the armchair type, though, you may prefer an asteroid-based adventure of the literary kind. The sci-fi legend Arthur C Clarke's The Hammer of God is set in 2109 and tells the story of a space captain tasked with pushing a giant Earth-bound asteroid off course and saving the human race.