Michigan Meteor: How These Space Rocks Can Be Dangerous, as Well as Stunning

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The Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013 triggered a shock wave that damaged buildings like this zinc plant and its power lines. Oleg Kargopolov/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday evening, a meteor streaked across America's skies, spurring hundreds of reports from states including Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. But while the object entranced many viewers who caught the spectacle on film, there's a dark side to meteorites as well, since larger specimens can cause serious damage.

Things fall to Earth fairly frequently, but usually burn up in our atmosphere. The atmosphere can also seep into the pores of rocks and cause larger meteorites to explode. "Our atmosphere protects us from a lot of the asteroids that we're finding," Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, which monitors asteroids around Earth, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Newsweek.

But the explosion, while preventing a giant impact, still has consequences. "We'd just have to worry about the shock wave," Chodas said. Reports that Tuesday's meteorite spurred a small earthquake were incorrect interpretations of a very real announcement by the United States Geological Survey, that their seismic devices had picked up signals the equivalent of a magnitude 2.0 earthquake. That shake was the result of a shockwave caused by the meteorite's entry. The larger a meteorite, the higher the probability of actually reaching the surface and of triggering a shock.

The most famous recent such shockwave took place in Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February 2013, after a rock about 65 feet in diameter (more than 10 times the size of the Michigan rock) plowed through Earth's atmosphere. The blast shattered windows, injuring bystanders with flying glass shards, and thousands of rock fragments rained down into the snow. Scientists later estimate it was a few dozen times more powerful than the blast produced by the Hiroshima bomb.

Read more: Protecting Earth from Meteors: Atmosphere Effortlessly Shatters Incoming Rock

An even bigger impact took place in 1908 in Siberia, called the Tunguska event. Unlike this week's incident, it took scientists 19 years to study the event in earnest, since the impact site was so remote and eyewitnesses didn't want to talk about what they had seen. The rock that caused that event is now believed to have been about 120 feet across, twice the size of the Chelyabinsk meteor, and the explosion it caused released 185 times the amount of energy produced by the bomb that fell on Hiroshima.

While large meteorites can be dangerous, their smaller relatives have captivated humans for millennia as shooting stars. And some day soon, humans will try their own hand at it, by creating colorful artificial meteorites the size of blueberries.