Space info to be classified

For 15 years, scientists have benefited from data gleaned by US classified satellites of natural fireball events in Earth’s atmosphere. But, that is all set to change with the new decision by the US military.

According to a report, the satellites’ main objectives include detecting nuclear bomb tests, and their characterisations of asteroids and lesser meteoroids as they crash through the atmosphere.

“It’s baffling to us why this would suddenly change,” said one scientist familiar with the work.

“It’s unfortunate because there was this great synergy, a very good cooperative arrangement. Systems were put into dual-use mode where a lot of science was getting done that couldn’t be done any other way. It’s a regrettable change in policy,” he added.
Scientists say that due to the new policy, not only will research into the threat from space be hampered, but public understanding of sometimes dramatic sky explosions will be diminished, perhaps leading to hype and fear of the unknown.

“The fireball data from military or surveillance assets have been of critical importance for assessing the impact hazard,” said David Morrison, a Near Earth Object (NEO) scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre.

Key data

The size of the average largest atmospheric impact from small asteroids is a key piece of experimental data to anchor the low-energy end of the power-law distribution of impactors, from asteroids greater than six miles (10 kilometres) in diameter down to the meter scale, according to Morrison.

“These fireball data together with astronomical observations of larger near-Earth asteroids define the nature of the impact hazard and allow rational planning to deal with this issue,” he said.

Astronomers are closing in on a years-long effort to find most of the potentially devastating large asteroids in our neck of the cosmic woods, those that could cause widespread regional or global devastation.

“So, it is ironic that the availability of these fireball data should be curtailed just at the time the NEO programme is moving toward surveying the small impactors that are most likely to be picked up in the fireball monitoring programme,” Morrision said.
“These data have been available to the scientific community for the past decade. It is unfortunate this information is shut off just when it is becoming more valuable to the community interested in characterising near Earth asteroids and protecting our planet from asteroid impacts,” he added.

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