FORT COLLINS — The meteor that burst over Chelyabinsk, Russia, this past February was one of the most recorded atmospheric events in history, captured by cellphones and dashboard cameras on the ground as well as by weather satellites in space.
A team of researchers from the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State University, along with colleagues from the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at University Wisconsin-Madison and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), have published a paper detailing observations of the meteor’s trajectory by several earth-viewing satellites, even though they are not designed to look for objects from space.
“The Chelyabinsk event is the first eye-witnessed large meteor known to cause significant property damage and injuries — and it was also seen remotely from space,” explained lead author Steven Miller, deputy director of CIRA. “The timing of the satellite overpass within a few minutes of impact is a remarkable stroke of good luck, which allowed for an estimate of the object’s trajectory through the middle atmosphere."
The scientific paper appears in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Earth-viewing environmental satellite sensors are, of course, looking down toward the Earth. They are designed to measure things like cloud cover, dust/smoke/ash/pollution, surface and atmospheric temperature and moisture, and other geophysical parameters,” Miller said. “However, when a large object enters the atmosphere, forming a fireball, these same satellite-based sensors are able to detect and map details of the debris trail left behind. This gives scientists important information that can be used to determine the original orbit of the body, as well as the break-up properties of the object, which give insight to its composition.”
The Chelyabinsk meteor, which caused an airburst explosion that damaged buildings and injured hundreds of people on Feb. 15 was observed by several weather- and environmental-monitoring satellites as it entered the earth’s atmosphere. By combining the perspectives of different satellites, Miller and his team were able to reconstruct a detailed trajectory for the meteor that was corroborated by independent surface-based estimates gleaned from an assortment of video dash-cams in Chelyabinsk.
“An important finding of this study is that we can make use of conventional weather satellites to observe and provide quantitative information about large meteors in a way that complements and augments surface- based monitoring, and it draws further attention to the utility of the space platform in future detection and mitigation strategies,” Miller said. “Using satellites that are constantly monitoring the Earth’s atmosphere to detect the influx of meteors promises to greatly improve our capability to detect, and perhaps prepare for, meteor impact events.”
The team is continuing to process data collected by the satellites and is posting images to the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere Facebook page as they become available.
The Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere was established as in interdisciplinary partnership between NOAA and CSU in 1980.