NASA discovered an asteroid on a collision-course with Earth. Just hours after discovery, the object disintegrated above Earth.
The boulder-sized space rock slammed into the Earth’s atmosphere Saturday (June 2).
The US space agency first detected the boulder when it was as far away as the Moon’s orbit. The asteroid was hurtling toward Earth at 10 miles a second.
The Catalina telescope in Tucson, Arizona, also took a series of time-exposure images where the space rock, called 2018 LA, appears as a streak. Astronomers immediately sent this information to the Minor Planet Centre in Massachusetts. Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory then investigated the data and found a “high probability” of impact.
However, if you are wondering why NASA couldn’t spot the asteroid sooner, that’s because it was just too small. The asteroid only measured around six feet (two meters) across.
“This was a much smaller object than we are tasked to detect and warn about,” said Lindley Johnson, Nasa’s official Planetary Defense Officer.
“However, this real-world event allows us to exercise our capabilities and gives some confidence our impact prediction models are adequate to respond to the potential impact of a larger object.”
A webcam also caught the brilliant fireball streaking across the sky above Botswana.
Observing a space rock just before hitting Earth is not that common.
This isn’t the first time astronomers spot a small asteroid just before it hit Earth. However, only two other instances come to mind, according to JPL.
“The discovery of asteroid 2018 LA is only the third time that an asteroid has been discovered to be on an impact trajectory,” Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in the statement. “It is also only the second time that the high probability of an impact was predicted well ahead of the event itself.”
On Oct. 7, 2008, the 13-foot (4 m) asteroid 2008 TC3 hit Earth over northern Sudan. Astronomers spotted that asteroid just 19 hours before impact. That’s enough time for scientists to plot a precise trajectory for the falling space rock. Later expeditions used that trajectory to find meteorite fragments of 2008 TC3.
The second event occurred Jan. 1, 2014, when astronomers spotted the asteroid 2014 AA just a few hours before it fell over the Atlantic Ocean.
The Catalina Sky Survey spotted all three asteroids while astronomer Richard Kowalski was overseeing observations, NASA officials said.
Thumbnail image: Artist’s concept of a near-Earth object. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech