Earlier this month, folks detecting atmospheric explosions for the United States government noticed something a bit out of the ordinary off the coast of Brazil. At roughly 2 p.m. UTC on February 6, a wayward meteor measuring roughly the size of a small living room entered Earth’s atmosphere and — while traveling over 34,000 miles per hour — exploded with an incredible amount of force. How much force, you ask? Think 13,000 tons of exploding trinitrotoluene (TNT), or more energy than what was given off by the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima.
According to recent data released by NASA’s Near Earth Object Program, the meteor was located some 1,150 miles southeast of the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, essentially in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. As it careened downwards, the object rapidly burned up and eventually exploded roughly 19 miles above the surface of the ocean. While the energy exerted will certainly raise eyebrows, rest assured, occurrences of this nature happen quite often and sometimes pack even more energy — e.g., the Chelyabinsk fireball in February 2013 released roughly 500,000 tons of TNT.
“The Earth is bombarded by debris from space to the tune of about 100 tons every day,” says Slate’s Phil Plait. “Most of the stuff is quite small, like the size of a grain of sand or smaller, and burns up 100 kilometers or so off the ground.”
Unfortunately for this latest event, the likelihood of anyone capturing the explosion on photo or video remains scarce considering it’s distant location off the coast of Brazil. Detection of the blast likely resulted from a combination of satellite imagery, atmospheric microphones, and seismic monitors, so even the people who initially stumbled upon this finding only had a series of data readings to work off of.
What’s maybe most chilling is the fact NASA (or any other agency, for that matter) has yet to perfect a method for detecting such meteors more than a few hours prior to impact. Though none have yet to pose a serious threat, the Chelyabinsk fireball did create a bit of a frenzy when it exploded in 2013, shattering a slew of windows which in turn caused injuries for more than 1,000 nearby civilians. NASA did recently open a facility whose sole purpose is to canvas space for asteroids bound for Earth, so perhaps it’s only a matter of time before events like these are known before they happen instead of weeks after.
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