A study published in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science has found NASA’s new Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) satellites can pick up meteors in the atmosphere.
The GLM spacecraft detects so-called bolides, or meteors that brilliantly light up when they explode in the atmosphere.
Some of the meteors have been recorded brighter than the face of the Moon upon atmospheric impact.
Samantha Edgington, GLM chief scientist at Lockheed Martin, said: “The instrument views Earth in only a narrow range of wavelengths of light.
“Since most of the light is blocked, we were surprised to see how readily the instrument detected the meteors.”
The NASA satellites, built by contractor Lockheed Martin, were develop to scan the Earth for lighting flashes.
GLM’s instruments capture 500 images of the Earth every second, from more than 22,000 miles above the planet.
But the satellites have now proven themselves capable of spotting bolides as they slam into the atmosphere.
The findings could have crucial ramifications for NASA’s Asteroid Threat Assessment Program, which is funded by the NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office.
The Asteroid Threat Assessment Program helps improve meteor impact prediction by studying how space rocks fragment as they barrel through the atmosphere.
Eric Stern, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, explained: “The range of altitudes over which asteroids deposit their kinetic energy – the energy of their motion – determines how dangerous the shock waves are that can cause damage on the ground.
“The light profiles derived from GLM data are slated now to be used in a future version of NASA’s automated bolide reporting system.”
The research paper, published by NASA’s Peter Jenniskens, looked at ten bolide impacts detected since GLM launched in November 2016.
The first impact was spotted on February 6, 2017, and was seen by at least 500 people over the US state of Wisconsin.
Mr Jenniskens said: “Meteorites likely fell in Lake Michigan but were never recovered.”
The other nine space rocks fragmented in different ways over the Northern Hemisphere.
One meteorite fell in Canada, and a bigger explosive event, was spotted over the Western Atlantic Ocean.
The GLM satellites were designed to photograph lighting strikes over the US but NOAA physical scientist Scott Rudlosky said the satellites can also detect longer-lasting thunder, which has helped spot the meteors.
Such longer-lasting types of lighting are being tracked to stay on top of lighting-cause wildfires.
But their detection has also stopped GLM from filtering the longer flashes of light created by the bolides.