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Newly declassified flaming meteors could help us protect the planet

They're not UFOs, but hotter.

Firestarter PRESS

Whenever you hear the word “declassified,” you know whatever it is will probably sound like it escaped from a science fiction movie. What has now been revealed is going to catch fire pretty fast.

While this is not the same situation as the girl in Firestarter (we're getting a modern day adaptation of Stephen King's novel this May), who is being stalked by a government agency because of her pyrokinetic abilities, flames and government agencies are involved. Think fireballs from outer space. That’s right, NASA and the U.S. Space Force have now agreed to release decades’ worth of formerly classified data on bolides, or large, fiery meteors brighter than Venus. The data is now accessible to scientists involved in researching planetary defense. Even you can access it, if only to find out what has been burning in the shadows for so long.

You can never be too paranoid about asteroids. The reason this information has been released by the Space Force and NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) is because it could potentially be used to develop new defense strategies for projectiles such as asteroids that might be hurtling towards Earth. Most near-Earth objects or NEOs aren’t hazardous, though there have been close calls. Some of them can be used to test our asteroid deflection abilities. This is why NASA launched the DART Mission to target nearby asteroid Didymos and its satellite Dimorphos, the smaller of which it will crash into in an attempt to shift its orbit.

“The release of these new bolide data demonstrates another key area of collaboration between NASA and the U.S. Space Force and helps further the pursuit of improved capabilities for understanding these objects and our preparedness to respond to the impact hazard NEOs pose to Earth,” said NASA planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson in a press release.

Fireballs streak across the sky more often than you might think. When an asteroid is not large enough to impact the surface but can still explode once it plunges into the atmosphere, it becomes a bolide, and these can occur several dozen times a year (it is possible to catch a glimpse of one in the right place). The government has been detecting fireball events with sensors and reporting them to NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Nearly a thousand of them have been identified since 1988.

How an object breaks up in the atmosphere — how high up and how rapidly — can give away its strength and what it is made of. The intensity of its light curve keeps changing as it disintegrates. Light curves of bolides are also needed for finding out how much energy the fireball unleashes and from where it came. They are smoother than the light curves of lightning, which are also studied by NASA. The remote Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM), used by NASA to detect lightning from space, has also been used to get an inside look at bolide light curves from space. GLM is still being upgraded to better understand these meteors on fire.

Asteroids hit Earth all the time, or at least the surviving fragments of them do. There was a recent atmospheric impact off the coast of Norwegian island Jan Meyen, which NASA not only predicted, but got right with the help of its Scout impact hazard assessment system. This asteroid is nowhere near the monster-oids that could someday threaten Earth. However, technology like Scout and information like what was just released could make predictions accurate enough to defend the planet from flying objects that could be coming for us.

Are we going to have some sort of apocalyptic event anytime soon? Probably not. That just gives us more time to plan ahead so our species doesn’t suffer the fate of the dinosaurs.

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