Do you remember the meteoroid that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013? It was the largest meteoroid impact ever recorded by NASA, and we just had another one almost as strong. According to NASA, the second-largest recorded meteoroid impact exploded over the Bering Sea in December.
The meteoroid was approximately the size of a school bus and weighed about 1,500 tons. It was traveling at a whopping 20 miles per second (71, 582 miles per hour) upon impact, but nobody saw it coming. It wasn’t until after the U.S. Air Force’s missile-monitoring satellites along with various infrasound detectors picked up on the blast that scientists were aware of the near-Earth object. (1)
Kelly Fast, NASA’s near-Earth objects observations program manager gave a report to the world about December’s meteoroid at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas. In an interview with BBC News, she explained that the meteoroid’s impact had “40 percent the energy release of Chelyabinsk,” an asteroid that broke through the earth’s atmosphere in 2013 and was recorded by drivers in the Russian city.
December’s meteor shower had the energy equivalent to 173 kilotons of TNT — about 10 times the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb in World War II. Because of its remote location of impact, it’s taken this long for scientists to draw attention to it to the public.
Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA, explained to BBC News that a fireball of this size is quite rare, usually happening only about twice or three times every century.
What’s the difference between a meteor, a comet, and an asteroid?
In case it’s been a while since your last science class, here’s a chance to brush up on your astronomy lingo. (2)
A comet is made of ice and dust, and it orbits the sun. If a comet approaches the sun and vaporizes, you can see it shine from very far away.
An asteroid is made of rock, and it orbits the sun. Most of the asteroids in our solar system are found in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but some make their way near earth.
Meteor is the scientific name for “shooting stars”. Meteors are streaks of light made from vaporizing meteoroids, which are small chunks that break off of asteroids in collisions and enter into earth’s atmosphere (and usually explode).
A meteorite is a meteoroid that actually survives impact with the earth’s atmosphere and lands on the planet. These can range anywhere from pebble-sized to boulders.
Materials from asteroids and meteorites can help scientists understand the chemical nature of our solar system’s planets from their first formations- quite exciting stuff! (3)
Should I Be Worried About Asteroids?
NASA directs some of its resources to fine-tuning how well we can spot near-earth objects as they approach our planet. For the most part, they’re paying attention to massive objects such as the hippo-shaped asteroid not so affectionately named “2003 SD220”, which clocks in at about 1 mile in length.
The Center for Near Earth Object Studies has collaborated with Aerospace Corp. to develop various ideas for a hypothetical planetary defense system against sizeable objects heading our way, but the force and resources it would take to carry these plans out aren’t anywhere near realistic yet.
For the time being, the next time you wish upon a star, maybe try wishing for it to play nice with our planet.
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