December 18, 2018

Asteroid headed straight for Earth burns up in sky

05 June 2018, 03:40 | Edward Lowe

Asteroid headed straight for Earth burns up in sky

Artist's concept of a near Earth object. Image credit

Churning through the data at top speed, astronomers at the Minor Planet Center and NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) confirmed that the space rock was on a collision course for our planet.

Thankfully, Earth's atmosphere saved our planet from a ground impact, and 2018 LA burned up due to the intense friction of entry. In one video, from a farm between Ottosdal and Hartebeesfontein in northwest South Africa, the asteroid appears as a brilliant streak that flares up into a spectacular fireball on the horizon.

"This was a much smaller object than we are tasked to detect and warn about", NASA's planetary defense officer, Lindley Johnson, said in a statement.

Asteroid 2018 LA was almost as far away as the moon (which is typically about 239,000 miles, or 384,600 km, from Earth) when it was first discovered on Saturday, NASA officials said.

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Because astronomers spotted the space rock when it was so close to our planet, they couldn't say exactly where it would impact.

These are the discovery observations of asteroid 2018 LA from the Catalina Sky Survey, taken June 2, 2018.

A rock entered the atmosphere travelling around 38,000 miles per hour at 6:44 pm Botswana time, creating a fireball, lining up with the predictions.

The impact of the asteroid treated residents of Botswana, in southern Africa, to an impressive light show. That trajectory plot was the first hint that 2018 LA could hit Earth. The smallest asteroids like 2018 LA are the hardest to spot, but also the least likely to do any damage.

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And while 2018 LA was discovered shortly before it arrived at our atmosphere, there are numerous organizations searching for potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) that could seriously impact life. Most are located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but occasionally some can get jostled out of their orbit, posing a threat to Earth.

It was first spotted when it was about the same distance away from Earth as the Moon is, and scientists jumped into action to attempt to predict where it might impact. Hours later, it struck the atmosphere. Expert Geoff Notkin tells us how! Researchers were also able to narrow the projected impact location using the automated Scout system at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Only two other instances come to mind, according to JPL. That was a slightly larger asteroid (about 13 feet, or 4 meters in size), and it was discovered a full 19 hours before impact, allowing for a large number of follow-up observations and a very precise trajectory to be calculated. All three of those events were discovered on the watch of astronomer Richard Kowalski at the Catalina Sky Survey.

The first event of this kind was the impact of asteroid 2008 TC3, which lit up the predawn sky above Northern Sudan on October 7, 2008.

The second event occurred January 1, 2014, when the asteroid 2014 AA was spotted just a few hours before it fell over the Atlantic Ocean.

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