Huge Meteor Explosion Over Cuba Was As Powerful As 1,400 Tons of TNT

On February 1, hundreds of people in the Florida Keys and Western Cuba witnessed a strange phenomenon. At around 1.15 p.m. locals spotted a bright fireball followed by a smoke trail moving through the sky at high speed, shortly before they heard a sonic boom, the International Meteor Organization reported.

The event was caused by a meteor exploding as it crashed towards Earth—and now NASA data has revealed just how powerful this blast was, CNET reported.

According to the space agency's Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS,) the meteor exploded with a total impact energy equivalent to 1,400 tons of TNT blowing up.

Meteors that meet their end in this way are known as bolides, with the brightest referred to as superbolides. These objects explode in what's known as an “air burst,” which occurs when they smash into the thicker regions of the Earth's atmosphere, that lie closer to the surface, at incredibly high speeds.

Scientists think the blast occurs due to the immense stress that the meteor is placed under as it is slowed and heated by friction in the air, according to the CNEOS. When the forces acting upon the object are greater than the tensile forces which hold it together, the meteor catastrophically explodes.

And one recent study, published in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science, revealed a previously unrecognized mechanism which greatly enhances the process of the meteor breaking up. The paper suggested that high-pressure air immediately in front of the meteor is pushed into small pores and cracks, causing it to rapidly disintegrate.

"There's a big gradient between high-pressure air in front of the meteor and the vacuum of air behind it," Jay Melosh, a professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University and co-author of the paper, said in a statement. "If the air can move through the passages in the meteorite, it can easily get inside and blow off pieces."

The bolide which exploded over Cuba was picked up by various monitoring services and was even caught on camera by some onlookers.

The U.S. National Weather Service's radar in Key West, for example, picked up a “signature” above the Cuban town of Viñales at a height of over 26,000 feet. And soon after, several people in the town reported finding potential fragments of the meteor.

The latest meteor explosion was one of the more powerful of such events to be recorded in recent times, however, it pales in comparison to the superbolide which blew up over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013.

Caused by a 66-foot long object entering the Earth's atmosphere at speeds of around 43,000 miles per hour, the explosion was estimated to be as powerful as the blast created by 400-500 hundred thousand tons of TNT.

According to the The Swinburne Astronomy Online Encyclopedia, around 5,000 bolides of various sizes fall to Earth every year, although most cause small explosions and very few are actually observed by humans.