The Day An Asteroid Created A Shockwave Stronger Than Nagasaki Blast

On June 6, 2002, an event called the 2002 Eastern Mediterranean Event exploded high in the atmosphere above the Mediterranean. The resulting shockwave, had anyone been close enough to feel it, would have had the force of a small atomic bomb.

Asteroids entering the atmosphere are nothing new. The Earth absorbs space debris daily if not hourly. Most of these events are not worth the time of day. E

ven a Volkswagen-sized chunk of debris will burn to nothing before it gets close to the crust. The object on June 6, 2002, was a little bigger than a VW.

According to one U.S. General, had it exploded further south, say near the Pakistan-India border, the mayhem from the blast may have incited a nuclear exchange between the two countries.

The Event

By our best estimates, the near-earth object (NEO) was 10 meters in diameter. It exploded over the Mediterranean Sea somewhere between Greece and Libya.

The resulting explosion we estimate had a force of 26-kilotons, more powerful than the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Nagasaki.

Had we not detected it with satellites from the bright flash, we would have never known it happened. But, had anyone been on a ship directly below the entry point of the asteroid, they would have not only felt it, they may have lost control of ship functions or suffered damage.

The Risks

As argued by General Simon Worden, the explosion could have ended with disastrous consequences had the position been further south. In 2002, the tension between India and Pakistan was high.

At one point officials believed a nuclear exchange was imminent.

“Imagine that the bright flash accompanied by a damaging shock wave had occurred over Delhi, India or Islamabad, Pakistan?” argued Worden. “Neither of those nations have the sophisticated sensors we do that can determine the difference between a natural NEO impact and a nuclear detonation.”

From Worden’s perspective, we have more than only the possibility of species-level events from NEOs. Those are the country-sized variants, which can end life as we know it.

We also have to consider the possibility that a smaller NEO, such as the one over the Mediterranean, could ignite confusion, attacks or even all-out-war.

The other risk, of course, is that a larger NEO could make an impact on land or water. Both create risks more immediate than confusion.

A tsunami, as we’ve seen in recent years like what hit Indonesia in 2004, can level cities. The dust cloud from a land impact could be equally devastating. Worden believes these risks less imminent, but very real.

The Solutions

First, we have to make sure everyone in a position to push a button knows that such events can take place. We can’t rely completely on satellites, as the NEO could knock the very satellite we’d use to detect it en route.

Also, we have to open channels of communication for such events, from countries with the technology to detect them, and between countries under tension.

For a planetary impact scenario, we have to have systems to detect incoming NEOs. According to NASA, we can detect about 25-30 percent of the NEOs worth seeing. That’s a big improvement since the 1990s, but the goal is to see more.

According to an article by NPR, “Our goal right now is to find 90 percent of the 140-meter asteroids and larger,” says Paul Chodas of Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL).

The JPL group is home to the Scout detection system, specifically created for the task of hunting large NEOs. It coordinates with huge telescopes to scan the skies.

Chodes also said, “The NASA surveys are finding something like at least five asteroids every night.”

General Wooden is quick to point out that special level events from NEOs make great movie plots, but we have more prescient issues with our NEOs.

“While the prospect of such strikes grab people’s attention… too much focus on these events has in my opinion been counterproductive.”

To be a threat in that way, a NEO would need to be bigger than half a mile across. The chances are slim, threatening, but not likely. The 2002 Eastern Mediterranean Event may not have made huge headlines, but for those in the military whose responsibility it is to prevent war, it’s big time.

How tragic if we nuked ourselves over a NEO exploding in the atmosphere? Let’s not do that, okay?