June 7, 2020

Orbiting Eyes Spy a Bering Sea Bollide

Just. wow.

The fascinating sequence of images below has been making its rounds around ye ‘ole web this week. It’s courtesy of the Japanese Space Agency’s Himawari-8 satellite, and shows something pretty remarkable: the contrail from a bolide that exploded over the Bering Sea near local noon off the coast of Kamchatka, Russia on December 18th, 2018. Though the approaching 10-meter asteroid went undetected and the resulting fireball was unwitnessed by human eyes, military detectors designed to record nuclear tests and 16 infrasound detectors recorded the estimated 176 kiloton event, 11 times larger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. This was also the largest meteor explosion since Chelyabinsk in 2013.

A heck of a smoke train… Credit: Japan Meteorological Agency.

Though it was a whopper, it wasn’t surprising that the event went unwitnessed: it was cloudy, (see above) near noon, and over a sparsely populated region in the dead of winter. Yes, the Sun does skim the southern horizon as seen from the southern Bering Sea, even near the December solstice, despite what flat-Earthers vlogging from their parent’s basement might have you think.

University of Western Ontario meteor scientist Peter Brown first tweeted the news of the event on March 8th, and later the Himawari-8 imagery above emerged. That bolide trail lingered for a while, and makes you wonder how many other meteor events are out there lingering in the archives.

Enjoy this sunny Friday afternoon, and remember, the next big one is indeed out there. It’s sobering to think, we still don’t see everything, everywhere, all of the time.