HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – A 30-foot meteor that crashed near the Bering Sea is making global headlines this week. It exploded 16 miles above the earth’s surface releasing more energy than a blast from an atomic bomb. No one really noticed because this happened in a remote area over the ocean. But large meteors crash into the earth more often than you might think.
NASA scientists are constantly working to protect the public from powerful explosions created when a meteor falls to earth.
Video from Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 shows aftermath from what looks like an explosion. It was actually a pressure wave created by a meteor exploding over Chelyabinsk, Russia.
“That’s why I say that pressure wave can cause damage. Here’s an example of what that pressure wave can do,” said Dr. Bill Cooke, NASA Meteoroid Environment Office Lead.
More than 4,000 buildings were damaged. 1,600 people were injured.
“Chelyabinsk changed our outlook,” said Cooke. NASA now partners with other organizations like FEMA.
The Planetary Defense Coordination Office has policies in place for different meteoric scenarios. If the object hurtling toward earth is larger than half a football field, “If we have enough time we will attempt to deflect it,” said Cooke. “If it’s smaller than half the size of a football field, we’ll let it hit and evacuate the area if it’s populated.”
NASA has three divisions keeping their eyes on the sky. At Johnson Space Center there is the orbital debris program looking for man-made debris. At the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, they specialize in small space rocks that could pose a risk to space crafts. At headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Planetary Defense Coordination office keep an eye out for larger meteors.
90% of meteors larger than a kilometer have been identified.
“I don’t expect to get smashed by a ten-mile wide rock like the dinosaurs. I don’t think we’re going to go the way of the dinosaurs,” said Cooke.
But scientists have only discovered two to three percent of rocks that are smaller than a football field. The event over Russia and the most recent explosion over the Bering Sea in December show that those have the potential to hit earth several times over the course of a person’s life. That’s why scientists are working to build new telescopes to detect them.
Scientists are currently working to build a large telescope in Chile called the LSST. It is expected to be operational in the next few years.