A Giant Meteor Almost Hit A U.S. Air Force Base – And The Military Has Kept Mysteriously Quiet

Image: MasterTux

Top scientist Hans Kristensen caught the world’s attention with a single tweet on August 1, 2018. It read, “Meteor explodes with 2.1 kilotons force 43 km above missile early warning radar at Thule Air Base.” Yet nothing at all had been heard from the U.S. Air Force about this troubling incident, which had happened a week earlier on July 25. So just what was going on?

Image: via Wikimedia Commons

Meteorites themselves are a far from unusual phenomenon. But this meteorite was certainly worthy of note since it had burst into the Earth’s atmosphere above the U.S.A.F. base at Thule in Greenland. Among other roles the base, set in the frozen wastes of the Arctic Circle, forms part of America’s early warning defense system against missile attack.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: C m handler

Thousands of meteorites hit the Earth every year, but most of those are tiny rock fragments. Since they mostly land in the sea or on uninhabited territory, the majority go unremarked. Actually, most meteors that enter our atmosphere – up to 95 percent – don’t make it to the planet’s surface at all. The heat generated as they speed through the air destroys them.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Calips

Meteoroids are rocky pieces of space debris – perhaps remnants of asteroids or comets – that, like us, orbit the sun. We call the light produced by such bodies entering our atmosphere meteors or shooting stars, and that characteristic line of light you see in the night sky is a meteor burning up as it falls towards the earth. Those that actually reach the ground before they vaporize we term meteorites.

Image: Don Davis/NASA

The best-known meteorite impact from pre-history is the massive one that created the Chicxulub Crater that lies below the Yucatan in Mexico. That landed on Earth around 66 million years ago and was likely between about 6 and 9 miles across. Many scientists theorize that this impact was so catastrophic as to cause the extinction of the dinosaurs.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via Steemit

Fast-forwarding to the modern era, the most violent meteor strike in recorded human history came in 1908 in Russia. Known as the Tunguska Event, this was a meteor up to 620 feet in diameter. In fact, although it caused significant damage, this particular meteor didn’t actually hit the ground. It exploded at an altitude of between three and six miles.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Twitter/David Hitt

Nonetheless, the blast from the explosion above a thickly forested area toppled an estimated 80 million trees over an 830-square-mile area. The force of the explosion would have been sufficient to destroy a good-sized city. Fortunately, as it happened in the remote forest of Eastern Siberia, there were no recorded casualties.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Alex Alishevskikh

When another meteorite hit Russia on February 15, 2013, however, it was a different story. This meteor was roughly 65 feet across. The Chelyabinsk meteor hurtled towards Earth at up to 42,900 mph and could be seen by observers more than 60 miles away.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/Aleksandr Ivanov

This was another meteor that exploded before it reached the surface, bursting into flames and disintegrating at an estimated altitude of some 97,000 feet. Despite this distance from the ground, the explosion and its associated shock wave and debris caused considerable damage.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Nikita Plekhanov

Russian authorities revealed around 1,500 people sought hospital treatment. Most had been hurt by breaking glass as windows were shattered by the powerful blast. Six cities in the Chelyabinsk Oblast (district) suffered damage to a total of around 7,200 buildings.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: NF/AFP/Getty Images

But the meteor we’re concerned with didn’t head for Russia. It was on a trajectory towards the key U.S. base of Thule in Greenland. Positioned 750 miles inside the Arctic Circle and just under 1,000 miles from the North Pole, it’s the most northerly U.S. military outpost there is.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: APIC/Getty Images

The first recorded European to explore the general area where the base is located was Sir John Ross. He arrived in this part of Greenland and met the indigenous people, the Inughuit Eskimos, in 1818. Through the years various camps were built there including one established by Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen in 1910. It was he who named the base Thule. “Thule” was a phrase used in classical antiquity to mean “the place furthest north”.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: United States Air Force

The U.S. first built communications and meteorological facilities at the site in 1941 during World War Two. An airstrip was constructed in 1946 as well as an upper atmosphere observatory which used high altitude balloons to make measurements. The military significance of the base came to the fore during the Cold War – it is located just on the other side of the North Pole from what was Soviet Russia.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Keystone/Getty Images

Thule now became a crucial air base for America. Its location meant that U.S. bombers could fly over the Arctic to Russian targets with less chance of being spotted. It also gave the U.S.A.F. an ideal base for fending off any Russian bombers that might be heading for American targets.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Google Maps

It would be hard to overstate the importance of this U.S. outpost, also known as Pituffik Airport. By 1958 It included four nuclear missile sites. In 1961 a radar system to detect incoming missiles had also been established near the main base. It was this site that would have warned America of an incoming Russian nuclear attack across the North Pole.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via Wikimedia Commons

As we know, in the event that attack never came. But the capabilities of the base as an early warning facility have been maintained. In 1982, Thule was taken over by the Air Force Space Command and now hosts the 821st Air Base Group. And it is still an important early warning site for America.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Thomas Grau

So this base is of crucial importance to American defensive capabilities. That makes it all the more difficult to understand why the authorities made no announcement when a large meteor exploded in the sky above Thule on July 25, 2018.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: CESAR MANSO/AFP/Getty Images

In fact, the first indication that this event had happened came in a tweet on July 31 from a user with the handle “Rocket Ron.” It read, “A fireball was detected over Greenland on July 25, 2018 by US Government sensors at an altitude of 43.3 km. The energy from the explosion is estimated to be 2.1 kilotons.” And it was this message that the aforementioned Hans Kristensen tweeted about.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: TSGT Lee E. Schading / U.S. Air Force

And since Kristensen is director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists, the world’s media sat up and took notice. Journalists particularly noted the fact that there had been no word from the U.S Air Force. As Kristensen drily pointed out in his tweet, “We’re still here, so they correctly concluded it was not a Russian first strike. There are nearly 2,000 nukes on alert, ready to launch.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

It was left to NASA to confirm the details contained in Rocket Ron’s Tweet. And finally, the U.S.A.F. made comment, 10 days after the incident. The Military.com website quoted an email from a Captain Hope Cronin, “There’s been no impact to Thule Air Base.” We can take comfort from those words. But we can still feel a justified anxiety about what might have happened if the meteor had hit the base. Could World War Three have started by accident?

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT