Meteors burn up over the Earth’s atmosphere all the time and the larger ones tend to last longer but eventually disintegrate or blow up before they strike the ground.
The latter ones make for some pretty impressive, if frightening, displays when one does notice them.
One particularly big one exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere in December and carried a force 10 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. But what’s remarkable is that no one even detected it.
The incident happened on December 18, 2018, at 11:50 pm GMT (3:30 am EST) over the Bering Sea (between Russia and Alaska) but civilian scientists only recently discovered it.
Experts believe it is only the second largest meteor explosion in the last 30 years, only surpassed by the huge Chelyabinsk fireball of 2013.
The December one measured 30 feet in width and weighed more than 1,500 tons and exploded with the force of 173 kilotons of TNT.
Peter Brown at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, happened upon the find and posted his discovery on Twitter.
He wrote: “Airburst over Bering Sea (58.6N, 174.2W) on Dec 18, 2018, @ 2350 UT detected by >16 infrasound stations worldwide. Based on periods in excess of 10 sec, the minimum yield is tens of kT range – could be ~100 kT. Probably most energetic fireball since #chelyabinsk”
The meteor blew up 16 miles above the surface around midday local time as it rocketed towards Earth at a steep seven degrees.
Kelly Fast, who is the near-Earth objects observations program manager at NASA, discussed the incident at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, near Houston, Texas.
“That was 40 percent the energy release of Chelyabinsk, but it was over the Bering Sea so it didn’t have the same type of effect or show up in the news,” reported the BBC.
“That’s another thing we have in our defense, there’s plenty of water on the planet.”
Military satellites had actually detected the explosion and the data automatically sent to NASA but it is only recently that scientists outside these organizations were able to assess the data.
Only the Chelyabinsk meteor tops the December explosion in terms of size and intensity. That one crashed into Russia in February 2013 and was part of a 656-foot wide asteroid named 2011 EO40.
The fireball was 18 meters wide and streaked through Earth’s atmosphere at 41,600 mph. It is thought to have released 30 times more energy than the atomic explosion in Hiroshima.
According to Spanish astrophysicists that studied the fragments that were scattered all over the town of Chelyabinsk, it came from the large Apollo asteroid that regularly crosses paths with Earth as it orbits the sun.
Gravitational forces may have caused a chunk to break off or the asteroid could have hit another space object that resulted in it breaking off.
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