A meteor measuring 59 feet across and weighing over 11,000 metric tons exploded over Russia after entering Earth’s atmosphere on February 15, 2013. However, it is the residual impact that has continued to interest scientists, including NASA’s Nick Gorkavyi. Thanks to modern technology, Gorkavyi and his colleagues were able to examine a never-before-seen view of the atmosphere after the meteor’s explosion, leading to observations about the meteor’s impact on the atmosphere. The explosion released more than 30 times the energy of an atom bomb, a news release from NASA notes. Some of the pieces from the meteorite fell to the ground, but the explosion also deposited dust into the atmosphere, and the scientists were able to observe the activity of the dust.
Gorkavyi led the study examining data on the dust collected by NASA satellites. The study has now been accepted for publication by the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
“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,” said Gorkavyi.
To do so, the team used both satellite measurements and atmospheric modeling to simulate how the plume of dust from the meteorite would evolve. The stratospheric jet stream carried the plume slowly toward the Northern Hemisphere, allowing the scientists to make their observations. About 3.5 hours after the initial explosion, the Ozone Mapping Profiling Suite instrument’s Limb Profiler on the NASA-NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite was able to detect the plume at about 25 miles up into the atmosphere.
On February 16, the day after the explosion, the plume was detected moving towards the Aleutian Islands. Larger, heavier particles began to lose speed while the lighter particles cruised on. By February 19, the plume had made its way back to Chelyabinsk, where it had originated.
However, this was not the end of the story for the dust. Three months later the scientists were still able to detect signs of it. Atmospheric models supported their observations of the plume’s journey. Paul Newman, chief scientist for Goddard’s Atmospheric Science Lab, extolled scientific advances for allowing the team to study the dust’s path so precisely. Thirty years ago, he explained, such precision would have been impossible, and all the team would have been able to do would have been to state that the dust was caught in the stratospheric jet stream. Thanks to new technology and a successful experiment, scientists will now be able to embark on a whole new era of high-altitude atmospheric physics study.