According to a paper accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, detail their efforts at tracking the Chelyabinsk meteor plume using the NASA-NOAA Suomi Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite. The Chelyabinsk meteor – weighing 11,000 metric tons and measuring 59 feet in diameter – entered Earth’s atmosphere shortly after sunrise on February 15, 2013, proceeded down towards the earth’s surface at 41,600 miles per hour, and then exploded 14.5 miles above the Russian city. NASA scientists witnessed the aftermath of the rare atmospheric event – and the subsequent study of the event was led by a Chelyabinsk native, atmospheric physicist Nick Gorkavyi.
The explosion of the 59-foot meteor some 14.5 miles in the atmosphere released more than 30 times the energy of the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima, Japan, during the final days of World War II.
In addition to the mass of surviving pieces of the Chelyabinsk meteor that fell to the ground, the explosion also released hundreds of tons of dust far up into the stratosphere. A NASA satellite was then used to measure this thin and cohesive stratospheric dust belt.
According to Gorkavyi, “We wanted to know if our satellite could detect the meteor dust. Indeed, we saw the formation of a new dust belt in Earth’s stratosphere, and achieved the first space-based observation of the long-term evolution of a bolide plume.”
Together with his colleagues, Gorkavyi connected a series of satellite measurements with several atmospheric models. This allowed the team to simulate how the dust belt evolved as the stratospheric jet stream carried it aloft around the Northern Hemisphere. Approximately 3.5 hours after the atmospheric explosion, the Ozone Mapping Profiling Suite instrument’s Limb Profiler on the NASA-NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite discovered the dust plume at altitude of approximately 25 miles, moving east at approximately 190 mph.
Four days after the initial explosion, on February 19, the higher portion of the dust plume had traced a serpentine path around the Northern Hemisphere, finally ending up back at Chelyabinsk.
According to Paul Newman, chief scientist for Goddard’s Atmospheric Science Lab, “Thirty years ago, we could only state that the plume was embedded in the stratospheric jet stream. Today, our models allow us to precisely trace the bolide and understand its evolution as it moves around the globe.”
The full implications of the study are unknown at this time. However, with satellites now capable of obtaining more precise measurements of small atmospheric particles, researchers can establish new studies in high-altitude atmospheric physics.