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A meteor exploded over Cuba this month; Here's where it came from

By Mike Wall
February 21, 2019, 3:31:13 PM EST

Astronomers just got the goods on the meteor that flared up over Cuba earlier this month.

The daytime sky show dazzled thousands of people across western Cuba on Feb. 1. Many of those folks captured footage of the meteor or the trail of debris it left behind when it burned up, permitting the reconstruction of the space rock's path.

"We were very lucky that at least three relatively reliable videos, including one with an incredible quality, could be available on the internet in such a short time," Jorge Zuluaga, a professor at the Institute of Physics (IoP) at the University of Antioquia in Colombia, said in a statement.

"Reconstructing the trajectory of a meteor requires at least three observers on the ground," Zuluaga added. "Although several satellite images were recorded and also available online, without observations from the ground, the precise reconstruction is not feasible."

cuba meteor

Trajectory of the meteor that fell over Cuba on Feb. 1, 2019, as reconstructed by a team of Colombian astronomers. (Image: © Zuluaga et al./Google Earth)

Zuluaga and his team determined that the meteor entered Earth's atmosphere about 47.5 miles (76.5 kilometers) over the Caribbean Sea, at a point 16 miles (26 km) off Cuba's southwestern coast. At the time, the rock — thought to be a few meters wide and to weigh about 360 tons (330 metric tons) — was traveling roughly 40,300 mph (64,800 km/h), the researchers found.

The meteor moved north-northeast in a relatively straight line. When the object reached an altitude of 17.1 miles (27.5 km), it developed a smoky trail of incinerated debris, which caught the eyes of countless observers on the ground.

cuba meteor 2

The Geostationary Lightning Mapper instrument aboard NOAA's GOES-16 satellite captured this view of the Feb. 1 meteor over Cuba (small blue patch at bottom center). The larger arc of blue in the upper left is lightning over the Gulf of Mexico.
(Image: © NOAA/NASA/Short-term Prediction Research and Transition Center)

At an altitude of 13.7 miles (22 km), the meteor exploded in an airburst, the researchers calculated. Hundreds of small pieces rained down on the island below. Many of these cosmic bits landed in Viñales Natural Park, near Cuba's western tip, but some chunks hit houses in the region. If a big piece survived the breakup, it probably landed in the ocean off the island's northwest coast, the scientists said.

Zuluaga and his colleagues also extended their model of the rock's path even further back in time. They determined that it originally occupied an elliptical orbit with an average distance from the sun of 1.3 astronomical units. (One astronomical unit, or AU, is the average Earth-sun distance — about 93 million miles, or 150 million km). The rock took 1.32 years to complete one orbit around our star.

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