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NASA: Yup, thousand-pound meteorite exploded over Texas

As good time as any for Europe to announce a 2030 asteroid-spotting mission

A rock two-feet-wide last week hurtled toward Earth at 27,000 miles per hour – and exploded with an energy equivalent to eight tons of TNT into pieces that rained over McAllen, Texas. (That's 0.6 metres wide and 43,000 km per hour for you metric folks)

America's National Weather Service said a Geostationary Lightning Mapper instrument aboard one of its satellites detected a bright flash at around 17​​23 CST (2323 UTC) on February 15 over Southern Texas. Residents nearby reported hearing a loud boom that rattled their windows in the early evening.

NASA confirmed that the object was a hefty fireball streaking through the sky, it was estimated to weigh 1,000 pounds (~454 kilograms). The space rock fragmented into smaller chunks at an altitude of 21 miles due to the effect of barreling through Earth's atmosphere.

Robert Ward, a planetary researcher from Arizona, recovered the first piece of the meteorite on private property near El Sauz, Texas, according to the American Meteor Society.

The Texas meteorite, along with two others that fell in Normandy, France, and Italy, come a decade after the infamous Chelyabinsk meteor that had an energy equivalent to 400–500 kilotons of TNT and injured hundreds. On average the Earth receives a kiloton-level strike every six months, research has shown.

NASA urged space agencies and organizations to step up efforts in defending Earth against hazardous objects. 

"​​The meteor seen in the skies above McAllen is a reminder of the need for NASA and other organizations to increase our understanding and protection of Earth, to combine scientific and engineering expertise to advance human space exploration, to integrate terrestrial and planetary research for furthering our understanding of the solar system, and to promote successful space missions by mitigating risk," it said in a statement. 

The latest meteorite events occurred just as the European Space Agency announced a new mission to detect risky asteroids hidden by the Sun. The NEOMIR mission, scheduled for launch in 2030, will send up a telescope to monitor space rocks near the Sun in infrared light that are invisible from the ground on Earth.

"Asteroids 20 metres and larger that are heading toward Earth should be detected by NEOMIR at least three weeks in advance," ESA said in a statement. "In the worst-case scenario, in which the asteroid is spotted passing near the spacecraft, we would get a minimum of three days' warning."

Research is also underway developing radar technology to scan asteroids in space to measure their size, composition, and speed. Astronomers building the Next Generation RADAR (ngRADAR) system at the Green Bank Telescope reported "results that were beyond expectations" last month at the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society, according to Scientific American. 

The ngRADAR system beams radio waves from a large network of radio telescopes across the US and the Virgin Islands to hunt for asteroids. Initial results showed it was sensitive enough to image an Apollo landing site and the Tycho Crater on the Moon. Astronomers also reported being able to detect a new asteroid at a distance five times farther away than the Moon. ®

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