Satellite captures a spectacular 'fireball' exploding above the Bering Sea

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
March 26, 2019, 1:23:29 PM EDT

NASA December 2018 fireball

This image sequence from the MISR instrument, aboard the Terra satellite, was taken a few minutes after a meteor exploded over the Bering Sea on Dec. 18, 2018. It shows the shadow of the meteor's trail, and the orange-tinted cloud it left behind. (NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL-Caltech, MISR Team)

A massive "fireball" was captured on satellite exploding about 16 miles above the Bering Sea on Dec. 18, 2018, unleashing a significant amount of energy.

NASA released the images of the fireball, the astronomical term used for exceptionally bright meteors that are spectacular enough to be visible over a wide area, on Friday, March 22. The moment was captured by two powerful NASA instruments aboard the Terra Satellite.

The explosion unleashed an estimated 173 kilotons of energy, which is more than 10 times the energy released by the atomic bomb blast over Hiroshima during World War II, according to the NASA press release.

The captured fireball was the most intense meteor to be observed since 2013.

On Feb. 15, 2013, a meteor weighing 10,000 metric tons exploded 14 miles above Chelyabinsk, Russia. Unlike similar previous events, scientists had access to sensitive instruments on the Suomi NPP satellite. These instruments delivered unprecedented data, helping scientists to track and study the meteor plume for months.

Prior to the December fireball event, the only time a satellite had detected a meteor on a visible-frequency "camera" image was the huge Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013, according to Scott Bachmeier, research meteorologist at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS), University of Wisconsin- Madison.

A fireball of this magnitude is expected to occur only about two or three times every 100 years, NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson told BBC News.

The fireball event went largely unnoticed because it blew up over the Bering Sea, off Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, according to BBC News.

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According to the NASA press release, given its altitude and the remote area over which it occurred, the object posed no threat to anyone on the ground.

"Scientists estimate that about 48.5 tons of meteoritic material falls on Earth each day," NASA reported. "When a meteoroid survives its trip through Earth's atmosphere and hits the ground, it’s called a meteorite."

Fireballs are fairly common, according to the NASA press release. These events are recorded in the NASA Center for Near Earth Object Studies database.

NASA December fireball

NASA's MODIS instrument, aboard the Terra satellite, captured this true-color image showing the remnants of a meteor's passage, seen as a dark shadow cast on thick, white clouds on Dec. 18, 2018. (NASA/GSFC)

Advances in satellite technology have allowed events like this one to be captured.

“Historically, satellites snapped photos of the globe every few hours, which made the chances small that scientists could capture an event as small as a rocket launch or meteor fireball,” AccuWeather Meteorologist and Social Media Manager Jesse Ferrell said.

Over the last five years, new satellites with increased camera technology have launched into space. These new satellites provide near-worldwide, high-resolution color images every 5 minutes, and in some cases images are snapped as frequently as every 30 seconds.

“Advances in Internet technology and cloud storage now deliver this information in real-time with long-term archives as well, allowing anyone to find satellite photos of events like this,” Ferrell said.

In addition to the photographs, advanced instruments on today's satellites used for lightning detection have also been able to detect the flash of a meteor burning up over Earth, Ferrell said.

The Terra spacecraft was launched in 1999. It is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Aboard the Terra spacecraft are two instruments that captured the fireball event, the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) and the Moderate Resolution Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MODIS).

The image sequence shows views from five of nine cameras on the MISR instrument taken a few minutes after the fireball event. The sequence was taken at 23:55 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)

The still image was captured by the MODIS instrument, which is a true-color image showing the remnants of the meteor's passage. MODIS captured the image of the event at 23:50 UTC.

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