The largest fireball since the Chelyabinsk, Russia, explosion of 2013 that left 1,400 people injured occurred earlier this month. The meteor broke up with the force of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, equivalent to 13,000 tons of TNT; however, it went unnoticed due to the fact it occurred over the Atlantic ocean some 620 miles from the Brazil coast. With no densely populated areas in sight, the largest event of its type clocking in at atomic bomb proportions was not witnessed by a single human being. This has left some scientists voicing concern that the big fireball event went unnoticed until details were disclosed by the U.S. military. One astronomer notes that atomic bomb equivalent events such as the meteor over the Atlantic cannot be predicted and most of the time we do not even know that the large rocks are hurling their way towards our atmosphere, the most recent February 6 event as a case in point.
Science Alert reports that the largest fireball event took place on February 6 at 14:00 UTC over the Atlantic since the 2013 Chelyabinsk explosion. The newest large meteor broke up around six miles above the troposphere, which is the layer of our atmosphere where weather occurs, approximately 620 miles from the Brazil coast. The fireball would have broke up with the force of about 13,000 tons of TNT, which would rival the force of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Despite the fireball’s size of about 5 to 6 meters (16 to 23 feet), it went unnoticed by NASA scientists until data was received from U.S. military about the explosion.
NASA’s Near Earth Object Program was first to report the strange event over the Atlantic Ocean. As you can see from NASA’s chart, the February 6 meteor was significantly larger than other objects entering the Earth with the calculated total impact energy significant in comparison to other fireballs over the course of the last year. In fact, the chart shows that the February 6 fireball was the largest fireball to enter Earth since the 2013 Chelybinsk fireball that left over 1,400 people injured.
Though the fireball was the largest of its kind since the Chelybinsk fireball with a force of 13,000 tons of TNT, it was still 40 times smaller than the large explosion in Russia. Despite being significantly smaller, astronomer Phil Plait says it is a concerning event, as it further proves that we do not have the proper capabilities to predict future meteor events that have atomic bomb equivalent destructive capabilities. In fact, Plait points out that the event went unnoticed until data from the U.S. military revealed the impact.
“[O]nce they get into the 20 to 50-metre range… explosions from impacts like that rival nuclear bombs. Happily, they’re very rare – here we’re talking fewer than once per century, statistically speaking – but it would be nice if we knew they were coming. It’s hard to say just what we would do if we saw one, but right now, we don’t even have that option.”
In other words, “small” meteors like the Chelybinsk fireball and the fireball over the Atlantic cannot be predicted before they reach our atmosphere. Therefore, Plait says his worry stems from our inability to predict these types of events, not from concern that this particular Atlantic fireball was a threat, as it was not. Sadly, Plait says that much of the information surrounding the Atlantic fireball on February 6 is unknown as the military does not want to release all the data surrounding the object out of security concerns. The military does not release information about what technology was used to collect the data or where the technology was located. Plait says he understands the need for the military to keep technology secret; however, from a scientific standpoint, the astronomer says knowing more details would be useful to the scientific community.
“I understand the desire for them to keep their technology and capabilities secret. It would be nice scientifically to have this data available, but then again they don’t have to release any of it at all, so even having this much is better than nothing. And it’s useful.”
Though Plait says it is concerning that meteors with atomic strength explosive capability cannot be detected before entering the Earth’s atmosphere, he notes that these types of large scale explosions are not common. In fact, they typically only occur about once a century. Likewise, it is noted that asteroids with wide scale destructive capabilities that are 140 meters or greater are detected by NASA at a rate of about 10 percent. Fortunately, in that 10 percent of the asteroids detected, the Earth has less than a 0.01 percent change of being hit by one of these space beasts.
What do you think about the latest fireball over the Atlantic that exploded with the same force as the Hiroshima bomb? Does it surprise you that such a large event could go unnoticed with the exception of the military?
[Image via Shutterstock]