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As asteroid zips past Earth, exploding meteor hints at what could have been (+video)

The meteor that exploded over Russia was much smaller than the asteroid that will buzz Earth Friday. But it shows how destructive Earth impacts can be – and how unexpected.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 will buzz within 17,200 miles of Earth – a record for a known object of that size
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As scientists prepared to watch a massive asteroid zip past Earth Friday, a 10-ton meteor lit up the sky over the Russian region of Chelyabinsk before exploding into fragments high above the ground. And just like that, a day of one flying space rock became a day of two. 

"This is a big deal," says Kaliat Ramesh, a professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "You really should view this meteoroid we saw in Russia as a wake-up call" regarding the hazards even small objects can present, he adds.

Indeed, it's a day of multiple wake-up calls.

At 2:24 p.m. EST today, asteroid 2012 DA14 passed within a scant 17,200 miles of Earth – a whisker in cosmic terms.

The asteroid is about 150 feet across and poses no threat to Earth, astronomers say, although an object of that size could take out a major metropolitan area if it collided with the planet. But the asteroid's close approach provides a unique opportunity for researchers to track and study it in ways that could improve their ability to distinguish truly hazardous asteroids in near-Earth orbits from the more benign objects.

Russia's meteor, however, has been anything but benign.

The first reports of the meteor came in a 7:55 a.m. local time, with many people capturing the event using video cameras installed in their cars.

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