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Earth from Orbit: Catching Bolides

January 13, 2022

On Jan. 1, 2022, just before 11:30 am local time, there were numerous citizen and media reports (as well as many emergency calls to 911) describing multiple sonic booms heard in southwestern Pennsylvania. The area was cloudy at the time, but the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) onboard the GOES East satellite detected the likely source of the sounds—a bolide, or large meteor exploding in the atmosphere. NWS Pittsburgh tweeted out a GLM image to explain the event, which was used in local, national, and international media coverage. 

A nearby infrasound station registered the blast wave from the meteor as it broke apart, and the data enabled NASA to estimate the energy was similar to 30 tons of TNT. Additionally, they estimated the size to be about a yard in diameter, with a mass close to half a ton. Had it not been cloudy, the fireball would have been easily visible in the daylight skyestimates indicate it was about 100 times the brightness of the full moon.

While designed for mapping lightning flashes, the GOES-R GLM can observe large meteors anywhere throughout its coverage area. The instrument takes 500 images of Earth every second, allowing it to measure the shape of a meteor’s light curve, or the change in brightness of a meteor with time, with millisecond precision. In order for GLM to detect these flashes, the bolides need to be as bright as the full moon. Due to this, the instrument is also able to pick up the signals of meteors in Earth's atmosphere. 

The loud “booms” with no visible source can cause a lot of anxiety, especially in populated areas. The National Weather Service (NWS) and broadcast meteorologists have begun using GLM data to quickly confirm the source and notify citizens to calm their fears. Below are a few examples: 

On Oct. 10, 2021 residents in parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire heard a mysterious loud boom. GLM data indicated that the source was likely a bolide as well

On Dec. 2, 2020, when the GLM onboard the GOES East satellite detected an atmospheric anomaly over upstate New York at the same time that dozens of witnesses from Ontario, Canada all the way to Virginia reported seeing a bright flash in the sky. Some people closer to the event even heard its associated sonic boom. This disturbance was a meteor that burned up in the sky as it streaked overhead. If any part of it had reached the ground, it would have been called a meteorite. According to NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, it clocked speeds of 56,000 mph before it disintegrated roughly 22 miles up.

On June 22, 2019, GOES East captured a meteor entering the atmosphere south of Puerto Rico. At 4:25 p.m. EDT, meteorologists noticed an unusually bright flash signature over Caribbean waters 170 miles south of the island nation. Its light was visible in an area as large as Rhode Island—far too big to be a lightning strike. Also, there were no clouds in the area. Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty sensors in Bermuda measured the resulting mid-air blast between 3 and 5 kilotons of TNT.

On February 1, 2019, at 1:17 p.m. EST, GOES East detected a bright meteor over northwestern Cuba. The meteorite landed near Viñales, Pinar del Río. 

“Earth from Orbit” is a new series of short videos that showcases a compelling weather event, environmental hazard, or interesting meteorological phenomenon each week, as seen by NOAA satellites. The series, a collaboration between NOAA and NASA, provides a look at the science behind the highlighted topic and imagery. A short article with additional information accompanies each video.