GOLDEN, Colo. — A far-flung system of detectors that make up a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty network made its largest fireball detection to date when a meteor exploded over Russia’s Ural Mountains Feb.15.

The Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) runs the International Monitoring System made up of infrasound stations.

Infrasound is low-frequency sound with a range of less than 10 hertz. Humans cannot hear the low-frequency waves that were emitted by the meteor blast over Russia, but they were recorded by the CTBTO’s network of sensors as they travelled across continents.

When the space rock detonated, the blast was detected by 17 infrasound stations in the CTBTO’s network that track atomic blasts across Earth. The farthest station to record the subaudible sound was some 15,000 kilometers away in Antarctica.

“It is the largest fireball detected by the CTBTO monitoring system,” CTBTO spokeswoman Annika Thunborg said Feb. 19 in an email. “The origin of the low frequency sound waves from the blast were detected by the network at 3:22 GMT on February 15, 2013. We and our Member States received the first data within an hour.”

Huge infrasound event

Prior to the Russian meteor event, the largest infrasound event registered by 15 stations in the CTBTO’s network was the October 2009 meteor explosion (called a bolide) over Sulawesi, Indonesia.

In a CTBTO statement discussing the Russian bolide, Pierrick Mialle, an acoustic scientist for the group, said: “We saw straight away that the event would be huge, in the same order as the Sulawesi event from 2009. The observations are some of the largest that CTBTO’s infrasound stations have detected.”

The Russian meteor blast picked up by the detectors is not a single explosion, Mialle said. Rather, it is burning, traveling faster than the speed of sound.

“That’s how we distinguish it from mining blasts or volcanic eruptions,” he said.

Mialle said that scientists around the world will be using the CTBTO’s data to better gauge the object’s breakup and discern more about the object’s final altitude, energy released and how the meteor disintegrated.

Micropressure changes

There are currently 45 infrasound stations in the CTBTO’s network that measure micropressure changes in the atmosphere generated by infrasonic waves. Infrasound is one of the technologies used in the CTBTO’s network of sensors to monitor the globe for violations of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty that bans all nuclear explosions.

Infrasound has been used as part of the CTBTO’s tools to detect atomic blasts since April 2001 when the first station came online in Germany. Data from the stations are sent in near-real time for analysis at the CTBTO’s headquarters. Both the raw and analyzed data are provided to all member states of the CTBTO.

CTBTO member states have spent $1 billion on setting up the CTBTO verification regime.

Just days before the meteor explosion over Russia, the CTBTO’s seismic network detected a seismic event in North Korea. That event on Feb. 12 measured 4.9 in magnitude.

Later that morning, North Korean officials announced that the country had conducted a nuclear test. The event was registered by 94 seismic stations and two infrasound stations in the CTBTO’s network.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...