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Newly released Space Force data could save life on Earth

Goodness, gracious, lots of insights on great balls of fire

The US Space Force is publicly releasing nearly 30 years of data on fireball meteors in the hopes it can improve the detection and impact prediction of near-Earth objects (NEOs).

The data contains information on bolides, classified as any meteor that has enough mass to become a fireball but not enough to cause a ground impact, several dozen of which happen each year.

Data from NASA on bolides is publicly available, but the Space Force is adding light curve data to the mix, which the agency said has been greatly sought by the scientific community.

Light curve data shows a plot of brightness as a meteor passes through the atmosphere and breaks apart. Prior to the release of bolide data, fireball reports were limited to peak brightness time, lat/long, altitude, velocity (and velocity components), total radiated energy, and calculated impact energy.

"An object's breakup in Earth's atmosphere provides scientific insight into the object's strength and composition based on what altitudes at which it breaks up and disintegrates.

The approximate total radiated energy and pre-entry velocity vector (ie, direction) can also be better derived from bolide light curve data," NASA said. 

The US government established NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) in 2016 to handle everything to do with protecting Earth from NEOs, and is responsible for discovering NEOs larger than 140 meters in size. Space Force has been part of that mission, and NASA planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson said the new bolide data will make a considerable difference. 

"The growing archive of bolide reports, as posted on the NASA JPL Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) Fireballs website, has significantly increased scientific knowledge and contributes to the White House approved National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan," Johnson said.

NASA said its impact prediction systems are already fully functional, as proved by the impact of 2022 EB5 on March 11, 2022. NASA said that it predicted exactly when and where the impact would occur, despite the meteor being only about 6.5 feet (~2 meters) in length. Its small size meant it wasn't detected until hours before impact, meaning data was limited and the prediction made with a bare minimum of information. 

Still, NASA said that 2022 EB5's detection should boost confidence in its ability to detect and predict the trajectory of a larger object on a collision course with Earth, and that's before the private sector starts trying its hand with that new data, too. ®

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