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Sixty-five million years ago a five-mile wide meteorite smashed into the Earth, wreaking havoc on weather patterns and possibly hastening the extinction of the dinosaurs. In June 1908, a somewhat smaller space rock exploded over a luckily uninhabited Tunguska, Siberia, flattening trees and killing reindeer over a nearly 10-mile radius. “The fire was brighter than the sun,” one eyewitness claimed.
These planet-altering meteorites were once thought quite rare. Then came the Cold War. The U.S. Air Force filled Earth orbit with sophisticated satellites meant to spot nuclear tests and missile launches. The satellites, it turned out, were also quite good at detecting the explosions — the official term is “bolide” — of meteorites like that over Tunguska. We now know they occur as frequently as several times a year. Over the decades, the military has periodically released brief reports on bolides and the other effects of so-called Near-Earth Objects. Today, for the first time, the Air Force is considering openly sharing this vital intel in a systematic way.
There are clear scientific reasons for better data-sharing. “From past experience working with U.S. government satellite data, the information provided is unmatched by any other data source and allows scientific analyses which are otherwise impossible,” Peter Brown told Space.com. But never mind all that. Planet Earth’s safety is at stake. This isn’t national security. It’s global security.
The Air Force anticipates sharing a range of data on bolides, including: date, time, location and altitude of the explosion, meteorite velocity and total radiated energy of the blast. The trick, from the Air Force’s point of view, is sharing info without giving away the capabilities of its most secret satellites. The Air Force has run into a similar problem with its mysterious X-37B space plane. The X-37 is meant, in part, to boost military space awareness. But to soothe other space-faring nations, some critics say the Air Force should share the data the X-37 gathers.