At 4:25 PM in the afternoon on June 22nd, 2019, meteorologists saw an exceptionally bright flash in the sky over the Caribbean Sea. Could it be lightning? No– there were no thunderstorms, and no clouds. The GOES-16 weather satellite designed to detect lightning was picking up something much, much brighter– a giant asteroid.
Luckily the asteroid exploded about 170 miles south of Puerto Rico, so it didn’t strike land. However, its light was visible to an area as large as the state of Rhode Island. The National Weather Service in San Juan detected debris on the radar, a sign of an asteroid explosion.
In addition, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation’s infrasound station in Bermuda picked up some sounds of the blast. That’s impressive, considering that station is more than 1,000 miles away from where the asteroid exploded. These sounds were essentially infrasound waves that are too low for human ears to hear.
Did they know it was coming?
NASA can identify large objects near the earth, such as meteors and asteroids that pose a threat to our planet. However, this meteor was about 13 to 16 feet in diameter. That’s large enough to cause damage, but not big enough to detect easily.
Nevertheless, the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy released a statement saying they had detected the asteroid in advance. They said they were able to see the asteroid by telescope about 7 hours before it struck earth. In what they called a science “breakthrough”, they mentioned observing the space object “four times in a span of 30 minutes.” They were able to predict the asteroid’s path and determine that it would most likely strike the earth.
The video above combines data from GOES-16’s Global Lightning Mapper and water vapor infrared spectrometer.
Was the asteroid dangerous?
In 2013, a meteor blast injured more than 1,000 people in Chelyabinsk, Russia. That explosion destroyed many buildings and homes. The meteor was the size of a small house. However, while the asteroid that exploded over Puerto Rico was sufficiently large enough to cause damage, it was not dangerous due to the fact that it burned up while entering the earth’s atmosphere. By the time it hit the Caribbean Sea, it was likely just a spray of fragments.
SpaceWeather.com reported that it split into at least 3 large pieces, plus many more smaller ones, as it flew through the atmosphere. The blast energy was equivalent to between 3 and 5 kilotons of TNT. Data from NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies shows that asteroids of this size only enter the earth’s atmosphere around once a year.
Were any fragments recovered?
No fragments were recovered from the asteroid. They are lost somewhere in the Caribbean Sea, to the south of Puerto Rico. Even if someone attempted to find them, it would be incredibly difficult because they appear similar to rocks from earth. In addition, the pieces most likely sank to the bottom of the sea very quickly.
See more news from the Caribbean:
- Rihanna Showcases Caribbean History in Bold Fashion Line
- Creepy Sounds Coming From the Caribbean Sea Can Be Heard From Space
Main image credit: GR2, adapted by Matthew Cappucci