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Computer code helps crack mystery around meteoroid explosions

A new study has indicated that the steady increase in air pressure seeps into a meteorite, which leads to its explosion in the Earth's atmosphere.

By: PTI | Washington |
December 12, 2017 7:53:01 pm
A new study has indicated that the steady increase in air pressure seeps into a meteorite, which leads to its explosion in the Earth's atmosphere. Melosh’s team looked to the 2013 Chelyabinsk event, when a meteoroid exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, to explain the phenomenon. (Image Source: NASA)

When a meteor comes hurtling towards Earth, the high-pressure air in front of it seeps into its pores and cracks, pushing the body of the meteor apart and causing it to explode, a study has found. The study, published in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science, found that our atmosphere is a better shield from meteoroids than previously thought.

“There is a big gradient between high-pressure air in front of the meteor and the vacuum of air behind it,” said Jay Melosh, a professor at Purdue University in the US. “If the air can move through the passages in the meteorite, it can easily get inside and blow off pieces,” said Melosh.

Researchers knew that meteoroids often blew up before they reach the Earth’s surface, but they did not know why. Melosh’s team looked to the 2013 Chelyabinsk event, when a meteoroid exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, to explain the phenomenon. The explosion came as a surprise and brought in energy comparable to a small nuclear weapon, researchers said.

When it entered Earth’s atmosphere, it created a bright fire ball. Minutes later, a shock wave blasted out nearby windows, injuring hundreds of people, they said. The meteoroid weighed around 10,000 tonnes, but only about 2,000 tonnes of debris were recovered, which meant something happened in the upper atmosphere that caused it to disintegrate.

To solve the puzzle, the researchers used a unique computer code that allows both solid material from the meteor body and air to exist in any part of the calculation. “I have been looking for something like this for a while,” Melosh said. “Most of the computer codes we use for simulating impacts can tolerate multiple materials in a cell, but they average everything together.

“Different materials in the cell use their individual identity, which is not appropriate for this kind of calculation,” he said. This new code allowed the researchers to push air into the meteoroid and let it percolate, which lowered the strength of the meteoroid significantly, even if it had been moderately strong to begin with.

While this mechanism may protect Earth’s inhabitants from small meteoroids, large ones likely would not be bothered by it, Melosh said.
Iron meteoroids are much smaller and denser, and even relatively small ones tend to reach the surface.

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