Earth is approaching the same "meteor swarm" that may have caused an entire forest to explode in 1908

By Caitlin O'Kane

/ CBS News

A swarm of meteors heading towards Earth could have the potential to cause a catastrophic impact, a new study from Western Ontario University says. The so-called Taurid swarm is a recurring event that some scientists believe could have played a role in the biggest Earth impact of modern times, in 1908, when a space rock slammed into Siberia with enough force to destroy an entire forest.

What has become known as the Tunguska explosion of 1908 was so powerful that the blast leveled 80 million trees over an 800-square-mile area. It's considered to be a one-in-1,000-year event, according to Western Ontario University. But while the Tunguska explosion occurred just over a century ago, another such phenomenon could occur much sooner than its 1,000-year expectancy, the researchers say. That's why they're focusing new attention on the Taurid swarm.

The Taurid swarm is a dense cluster of meteors within the Taurid meteor stream. Earth periodically passes through the Taurid swarm, and it is one of the three space phenomenons that could result in a catastrophic collision. Near Earth Objects (NEOs) such as asteroids and meteoroids, as well as comets are the other two potential causes.

Illustration of the Taurid swarm core passing below Earth. Scientists don't think a catastrophic collision will occur this year, but they're glad the Taurid swarm will be at its closest so they can study it. Western Ontario University

The Taurid swarm is created when Earth passes through the debris left behind by Comet Encke, according to NASA. The comet's dust barrels through Earth's atmosphere at 65,000 mph, burns up and creates a meteor shower. This Taurid meteor shower is usually weak, but there are some years where it is more visible, NASA says.

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The Taurid swarm heightens the possibility of a large collision, Western Ontario University researchers hypothesized.

tunguskakulikbig.jpg
An image of trees felled by the Tunguska explosion, an event in 1908 that was blamed on a huge asteroid or meteoroid impact. The Leonid Kulik Expedition

This summer, Earth will approach within 30,000,000 km of the center of the Taurid swarm, the study says. That would be Earth's closest encounter with the swarm since 1975 and the best viewing opportunity we'll have until the early 2030s.

This closeness will not only benefit star-gazers, but it also allows the researchers to study the Taurid swarm and its potentially risks.

"There is strong meteoric and NEO evidence supporting the Taurid swarm and its potential existential risks, but this summer brings a unique opportunity to observe and quantify these objects," said David Clark, a Western Ontario University graduate student and first author of the study.

While the Taurid swarm is not expected to cause any harm, Western Ontario University researchers will be studying it closely by using the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope at the University of Hawaii in August. That's when they'll get optimal viewing to gather information — and hopefully learn more about whether the swarm is capable of causing a repeat of the 1908 impact.

First published on June 12, 2019 / 11:46 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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