The loud boom heard over the skies of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on New Year’s Day was due to an exploding meteor with the blast energy equivalent to 30 tons of TNT, NASA has confirmed.
People in the southwestern parts of the US city reported hearing a thunderous roar and feeling the ground shake and windows rattle just before 1130 EST (1630 UTC) on the first day of 2022. The National Weather Service suspected the noise was from a detonating meteor after the agency's GOES-16 Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM), an optical instrument, failed to detect lightning.
The loud explosion heard over SW PA earlier may have been a meteor explosion. This GOES-16 GLM Total Optical Energy product shows a flash that was not associated with lightning. No confirmation, but this is the most likely explanation at this time. pic.twitter.com/ArtHCEA1RT— NWS Pittsburgh (@NWSPittsburgh) January 1, 2022
Further investigation by NASA confirmed the blast was indeed from a meteor exploding in the sky.
“A nearby infrasound station registered the blast wave from the meteor as it broke apart; the data enabled an estimate of the energy at 30 tons of TNT,” according to a statement posted by NASA Meteor Watch. “If we make a reasonable assumption as to the meteor’s speed (45,000 miles per hour), we can ballpark the object’s size at about a yard in diameter, with a mass close to half a ton.”
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Unfortunately, the exploding meteor wasn’t very visible due to the cloudy weather. If skies were clear, however, the rock would have been an estimated 100 times brighter than a full moon.
Boffins think the explosion was from a bolide, an unusually bright type of meteor that explodes in the Earth's skies. As bolides hurtle through our atmosphere at high speeds, the surrounding high-pressure air that manages to get into the rock breaks it apart in a violent explosion.
Sonic booms formed by exploding meteors are quite rare, according to the American Meteor Society. Bright, dazzling fireballs from meteors burning up, however, aren’t. Several thousands streak across our skies every day, but they aren’t usually visible since they fall over oceans or their brightness is drowned out by sunlight. ®