An agreement between NASA and the U.S. Space Force recently authorized the public release of decades of data collected by U.S. government sensors on fireball events (large bright meteors also known as bolides) for the benefit of the scientific and planetary defense communities.
This action results from collaboration between NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) and the U.S. Space Force to continue furthering our nation’s efforts in planetary defense, which include finding, tracking, characterizing, and cataloguing near-Earth objects (NEOs).
The newly released data is comprised of information on the changing brightness of bolides as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere, called light curves, that could enhance the planetary defense community’s current ability to model the effects of impacts by larger asteroids that could one day pose a threat to Earth.
Bolides, very bright meteors that can even be seen in daylight, are a regular occurrence – on the order of several dozen times per year – that result when our planet is impacted by asteroids too small to reach the ground but large enough to explode upon impact with Earth’s atmosphere.
U.S. government sensors detect these atmospheric impact events, and the bolide data is reported to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) fireballs database, which contains data going back to 1988 for nearly one thousand bolide events.
Now, planetary defense experts will have access to even more detailed data – specifically, light curve information that captures the optical intensity variation during the several seconds of an object’s breakup in the atmosphere.
The data will be available to scientists as soon as it is properly archived, with the reported events and made easily accessible. This uniquely rich data set has been greatly sought after by the scientific community as an object’s breakup in Earth’s atmosphere provides scientific insight into the object’s strength and composition based on what altitudes at which it breaks up and disintegrates. The approximate total radiated energy and pre-entry velocity vector (i.e., direction) can also be better derived from bolide light curve data.
“The growing archive of bolide reports, as posted on the NASA CNEOS Fireballs website, has significantly increased scientific knowledge and contributes to the White House approved National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan” said Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA Headquarters.
“The release of these new bolide data demonstrates another key area of collaboration between NASA and the U.S. Space Force and helps further the pursuit of improved capabilities for understanding these objects and our preparedness to respond to the impact hazard NEOs pose to Earth.”
Recently a small asteroid approximately 2 meters in size, so small it posed no hazard to Earth, was detected in space as it approached Earth and impacted the atmosphere southwest of Jan Mayen, a Norwegian island nearly 300 miles (470 kilometers) off the east coast of Greenland and northeast of Iceland.
While this asteroid, designated 2022 EB5, was much smaller than objects NASA is tasked to detect and warn about, CNEOS continued to update NASA’s PDCO with impact location predictions as observations were collected leading up to 2022 EB5’s impact, offering the planetary defense community a real-word scenario to test NEO tracking capabilities and give confidence that the impact prediction process and models are adequate for timely and accurate notification of the potential impact of a larger object, should one be discovered on a trajectory toward Earth.
Like other bolide events, 2022 EB5’s impact was detected by U.S. Government sensors and reported by the U.S. Space Force units, confirming the time and location predicted by CNEOS, and added to NASA’s archive of these events at JPL CNEOS.
First Known Interstellar Object on Earth
Another notable bolide event in this released data set is of a meteor that was detected on Jan 8, 2014. This object gained the interest of the scientific community as it has been posited it could have interstellar origin due to the detected event’s high velocity within the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, a newly-released memo has confirmed that the space object was from another star system.
6/ “I had the pleasure of signing a memo with @ussfspoc’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Mozer, to confirm that a previously-detected interstellar object was indeed an interstellar object, a confirmation that assisted the broader astronomical community.” pic.twitter.com/PGlIOnCSrW
— U.S. Space Command (@US_SpaceCom) April 7, 2022
The meteor ignited in a fireball in the skies near Papua New Guinea, the memo states, and scientists believe it possibly sprinkled interstellar debris into the South Pacific Ocean. The confirmation backs up the breakthrough discovery of the first interstellar meteor—and, retroactively, the first known interstellar object of any kind to reach our solar system—which was initially flagged by a pair of Harvard University researchers in a study posted on the preprint server arXiv in 2019.
Amir Siraj, a student pursuing astrophysics at Harvard who led the research, said the study has been awaiting peer review and publication for years, but has been hamstrung by the odd circumstances that arose from the sheer novelty of the find and roadblocks put up by the involvement of information classified by the U.S. government.
The discovery of the meteor, which measured just a few feet wide, follows recent detections of two other interstellar objects in our solar system, known as ‘Oumuamua and Comet Borisov, that were much larger and did not come into close contact with Earth.
“I get a kick out of just thinking about the fact that we have interstellar material that was delivered to Earth, and we know where it is,” said Siraj, who is Director of Interstellar Object Studies at Harvard’s Galileo Project, in a call. “One thing that I’m going to be checking—and I’m already talking to people about—is whether it is possible to search the ocean floor off the coast of Papua New Guinea and see if we can get any fragments.”
Siraj acknowledged that the odds of such a find are low, because any remnants of the exploded fireball probably landed in tiny amounts across a disparate region of the ocean, making it tricky to track them down.
“It would be a big undertaking, but we’re going to look at it in extreme depth because the possibility of getting the first piece of interstellar material is exciting enough to check this very thoroughly and talk to all the world experts on ocean expeditions to recover meteorites,” he noted.
Siraj and study co-author Avi Loeb, who serves as Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, were inspired to search for potential interstellar fireballs in the wake of the discovery of ‘Oumuamua, an interstellar object measuring about a quarter mile that was spotted hurtling out of the solar system in 2017. Loeb, who has famously speculated that ‘Oumuamua might have been a piece of alien technology, suggested that Siraj comb through a database of fireballs and meteor impacts run by NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS).
There are nearly 1,000 impacts logged in the database, but a fireball that exploded near Manus Island on January 8, 2014 jumped out at Siraj due to an unusually swift speed exceeding 130,000 miles per hour. This breakneck pace hinted at “a possible origin from the deep interior of a planetary system or a star in the thick disk of the Milky Way galaxy,” according to the team’s 2019 study.
“It was really fast, and so I was like: ‘Oh my God, this could be an interstellar meteor,’” Siraj said. “It was hiding in plain sight. It wasn’t that we had to dig to find this database. It was more that there hadn’t been an interstellar object until 2017. As a result, no one had a reason to think that there could be meteors that were from outside of the solar system.”
Siraj and Loeb submitted the discovery to The Astrophysical Journal Letters, but the study became snarled during the review process by missing information withheld from the CNEOS database by the U.S. government.
While this was an incredibly small object, it indicates that the solar system may be awash in material from other star systems, and indeed even other galaxies, that could be turned up by future searches. Such efforts could offer a glimpse of the worlds beyond the Sun right here on Earth, and perhaps even unearth bonafide interstellar meteorites.
“Given how infrequent interstellar meteors are, extra-galactic meteors are going to be even rarer,” Siraj cautioned. ”But the fact of the matter is, going forward, we won’t find anything unless we look for it. We might as well take it upon ourselves as scientists to build a network as extensive as the U.S government’s sensor network, and use it for the purposes of science and fully use the atmosphere.”
“The atmosphere is already a sensor for these things,” he concluded. “We’re just not paying attention to the signals. So we might as well use the whole atmosphere and see what comes our way.” [NASA, VICE, PDCO]
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