Roughly 24 hours after a near-miss with a larger asteroid, meteors lit-up the night sky over portions of the U.S. East Coast and Hawaii overnight. According to the American Meteor Society (AMS), more than 350 people reported incident 3151-2019 in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont last night around 25th 2019 around 11:04pm ET. Seven hours later, at roughly 12:12am local time in Hawaii, a bright blue flash and rumble startled residents on Hawaii’s Big Island. The Hawaii incident, labeled 3153-2019, was reported to AMS by at least 4 people. A fireball, or meteor, that makes it to the Earth’s surface is known as a meteorite. An asteroid is a large rocky body in space orbiting the Sun; a meteor is simply a smaller asteroid.
According to the AMS, a fireball is another term for a very bright meteor, generally brighter than magnitude -4, which is about the same magnitude of the planet Venus in the morning or evening sky. A bolide is a special type of fireball which explodes in a bright terminal flash at its end, often with visible fragmentation. Based on observations in Hawaii, it appears a bolide event unfolded there.
The AMS describes the characteristics fireballs can exhibit: “Fireballs can develop two types of trails behind them: trains and smoke trails. A train is a glowing trail of ionized and excited air molecules left behind after the passage of the meteor. Most trains last only a few seconds, but on rare occasions a train may last up to several minutes. A train of this duration can often be seen to change shape over time as it is blown by upper atmospheric winds. Trains generally occur very high in the meteoric region of the atmosphere, generally greater than 80 km (65 miles) altitude, and are most often associated with fast meteors. Fireball trains are often visible at night, and very rarely by day. The second type of trail is called a smoke trail, and is more often seen in daylight fireballs than at night. Generally occurring below 80 km of altitude, smoke trails are a non-luminous trail of particulate stripped away during the ablation process. These appear similar to contrails left behind by aircraft, and can have either a light or dark appearance.”
The bright lights and rumble came roughly 24 hours after the forecast near-miss by two asteroids with Earth, one of which passed closer than the distance between the Earth and Moon. It is possible that all of these space rocks are related and additional near-misses and impacts could be possible in the coming days.
A similar bolide impacted Krasnoyarsk in Russia months ago; the April 7 event was third major meteor or meteorite event to impact the area over the last 8 months. On December 18, local media reported that a meteor exploded close to Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula with a force ten times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb, according to NASA. On March 15, a meteorite slammed into Krasnoyarsk region with local reports saying it ”warmed the air” and “shook the ground” after streaking across the sky in a green, yellow and orange fireball.
The Russian impacts happened near the infamous site of the 1911 Tunguska Event where a meteor exploded in the atmosphere wiping out 80 million trees, and with the estimated force of 185 Hiroshima bombs.
The United States government has become increasingly concerned and prepared for a similar natural disaster. In April, NASA teamed with FEMA and leading experts and first responders to work through a comprehensive drill that simulated an asteroid impact threat over the U.S.
NASA says the threat is real: an asteroid can impact Earth and the United States, perhaps destroying an entire state …or more. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine addressed the threat and the importance of using the science of planetary defense to protect Earth at the disaster simulation hosted at the International Academy of Astronautics’ 2019 Planetary Defense Conference held in College Park, Maryland.
“We have to make sure that people understand that this is not about Hollywood, it’s not about movies,” Bridenstine said, referencing the so-called “giggle factor” that he believes causes the public to write off the severity of the risk from an asteroid impact. “This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life, and that is the planet Earth.”
It is believed such an impact brought about an end to the dinosaur era on Earth. “We have to use our systems, use our capabilities to ultimately get a lot more data, and we have to do it faster,” Bridenstine said. “We know for a fact that the dinosaurs did not have a space program. But we do, and we need to use it.”
In June, astronomers showed that telescopes could provide enough warning to allow people to move away from an asteroid strike on Earth. Astronomers at the University of Hawaii used the ATLAS and Pan-STARRS survey telescopes to detect a small asteroid before it entered Earth’s atmosphere on the morning of June 22. The asteroid, named 2019 MO, was 13 feet in diameter and 310,685 miles from Earth. The ATLAS facility observed it four times over 30 minutes around midnight in Hawaii.
ATLAS, which consists of two telescopes 100 miles apart on Mauna Loa on Hawaii’s Big Island and Haleakala on Maui Island, scans the entire sky every two nights for asteroids that could impact Earth. It can spot small asteroids half a day before they arrive at Earth and could point to larger asteroids days before. The Pan-STARRS telescope was also operating and captured part of the sky where the asteroid could be seen. Pan-STARRS is short for the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System; it too is located at the Haleakala Observatory.
While ATLAS detected the initial threat, imagery from Pan-STARRS was able to inform researchers on the entry path for that June asteroid. That particular asteroid burned-up in the atmosphere 236 miles south of San Juan, Puerto Rico; images provided by weather RADAR there confirmed the forecasts astronomers were able to make based on ATLAS and Pan-STARRS data and imagery.
The same scientists and tools were able to forecast a near-miss that occured yesterday. At about 9:31am ET / 3:31am HT yesterday morning, Asteroid 2019 OD passed by, crossing the Earth’s orbit within 222,164 miles of the surface; the Moon is 238,900 miles away. The asteroid is about 393 feet wide and is chugging along in space at a mind-blowing 42,926 miles per hour. As forecast, neither of those asteroids were expected to impact or harm Earth.
Scientists with the University of Hawaii and NASA are working on refining forecasts, with the hopes of being able to properly warn people of an impending impact weeks or months before it occurs. As the NASA/FEMA drill illustrated, scientists would also use modern technology to attempt to destroy or divert an inbound asteroid to minimize impacts on Earth before such an impact materialized.