Fragments of at least one meteorite – the weight of a double-decker bus – were seen falling from the sky in the Chelyabinsk region at around 9am local time, around 1,500km east of Moscow.
A regional governor said 950 people have been injured. Russia’s Ministry of Emergencies said at least 82 children were hurt and 34 adults and 12 children were being treated in hospital. Two people are in intensive care.
Many were hurt by flying glass as windows were blown in. Witnesses described feeling a pressure wave and hearing explosions overhead as the object hurtled to earth.
The Russian Academy of Sciences estimates the meteor weighed about 10 tonnes and entered the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of at least 33,000mph (54,000kph) – 15 times the speed of a rifle bullet – and shattered up to 32 miles (50km) above ground.
Meteors typically cause sizeable sonic booms when they enter the atmosphere because they are travelling much faster than the speed of sound.
The defence ministry said it had identified a six metre crater near a lake in this region and has sent soldiers to the site of the impact.
The emergencies ministry said that 20,000 rescue workers had been dispatched to help the injured and locate those needing help.
“It was a very loud sound. After that our windows began to shatter and shiver so it was very terrifying. First we thought it was a plane crash.”
Planetary scientist Professor Ian Crawford of Birkbeck University said this was an unusual case as meteorite hits rarely cause any damage.
“Several times a year meteorites are observed to fall on the earth’s surface but damage to people or property is very unusual – there are only several recorded cases of buildings being hit by meteorites.”
Describing the course of the meteorite he said: “I think it’s very likely that it would have been a larger lump of rock that broke up in the earth’s atmosphere – this is usually what happens.
“The rock comes in from space and hits the earth’s atmosphere. That decelerates it and puts a lot of stress on it. Then it’s likely to fragment into lots of pieces.”
The local office of the National Emergencies Ministry said in a statement: “A meteorite disintegrated above the Urals (mountain range in central Russia), partially burning up in the lower atmosphere.
“Fragments of the meteorite reached Earth, falling in sparsely populated areas in the Chelyabinsk region.”
Many drivers in Russia have video recorders fitted in their cars in case of accidents or disputes with traffic police. Footage from these uploaded to YouTube show the fireball crashing to the ground.
There were reports of traffic in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk grinding to a halt and people seeking shelter in buildings as the fireballs lit up the sky.
The emergencies ministry confirmed the mobile phone network was temporarily cut. Schools were closed for the day across the region after the impact blew out windows.
The meteor hit less than a day before the asteroid 2012 DA14 is to make the closest recorded pass of an asteroid to the Earth – about 17,150 miles (28,000km). But the European Space Agency in a tweet said its experts had determined there was no connection.
The Chelyabinsk region is Russia’s industrial heartland, home to many factories and other huge facilities that include a nuclear power plant and the Mayak atomic waste storage and treatment centre.
A spokesman for Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy state corporation, said that its operations remained unaffected.
Reprinted from news.sky.com