Earth’s atmosphere withstood a prominent explosion in December and nobody noticed, until now.
The explosion, which occurred around noon local time over the Bering Sea, off of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, was the result of a massive fireball, explained NASA.
When the asteroid blew up, it released an impact energy of 173 kilotons – 10 times more energy than the atomic bomb infamously dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II.
Dr. Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer, explained to BBC News that fireballs of this magnitude average two or three appearances every 100 years.
According to Dr. Kelly Fast, NASA’s program manager for near-Earth objects observations, the location of the explosion played a large role in why it was under reported, unlike the fireball six years ago over Chelyabinsk — also in Russia.
Fast added, “That’s another thing we have in our defense, there’s plenty of water on the planet.”
NASA was informed of the asteroid by the U.S. Air Force, after the explosion — which occurred on December 18 — registered on military satellites last year.
Asteroids that measure 460 ft (140m) or more are also referred to as “problems without passports,” given the risk they pose to entire regions should they hit the planet. Though Congress ordered NASAS to locate 90% of these asteroids by 2020, scientists don’t expect they’ll be able to finish the job for another three decades.
The December explosion remains jarring because it proves these events aren’t always predictable, thereby heightening the necessity for better monitoring.
A telescope known as NeoCam might be the solution. Though still in development, NeoCam would be launched into space in order to help to “discover and characterize potentially hazardous asteroids larger than 140m,” says BBC News.
Dr. Amy Mainzer, who serves as chief scientist on NeoCam at JPL, is hopeful about the impact her work can have. The purpose of NeoCam, she said, is to fulfill that discovery quota given by Congress, the 90%. Should work on NeoCam fall by the waist side, Mainzer predicts it will “take us many decades to get there with the existing suite of ground-based surveys.”