Published: Tue, June 05, 2018
Sci-tech | By Brandy Patterson

Pint-sized asteroid spotted just hours before slamming into Earth’s atmosphere


On Saturday morning, the Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Arizona, caught a glimpse of an asteroid racing toward Earth. Researchers there quickly determined its trajectory put the rock on a probable collision course with Earth.

The rock entered Earth's atmosphere at a speed of approximately 38,000 miles per hour.

Lindley Johnson, Planetary Defense Officer at NASA Headquarters explained: "This was a much smaller object than we are tasked to detect and warn about".

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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The final moments of the asteroid's existence appear to have been caught by a webcam in South Africa and posted online.

'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'.

Catalina Sky Survey astronomers reported the asteroid finding to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which managed to calculate a preliminary trajectory for the asteroid. The asteroids that do hit Earth, like 2018 LA, typically occur with little to no warning. This is because asteroid detection depends on telescopes picking up sunlight reflected off the asteroid's surface. 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 burned up and burst into scraps in our atmosphere. The bigger an asteroid is, the farther away it can be detected.

Astronomers can easily track massive space rocks big enough to cause the extinction of humanity.

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It was much smaller than the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February 2013, which was an estimated 60 feet wide.

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. Expert Geoff Notkin tells us how!

A quick trajectory for the asteroid was calculated at the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, but the asteroid was deemed harmless. "It is also only the second time that the impact location was predicted well ahead of the event itself".

There have been only two other times when asteroids were detected so soon before impact.

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While this isn't the first time a small asteroid has been spotted just before it hit Earth, it certainly isn't that common. The first was 2008 TC3, which was detected 15 hours before it broke up over northern Sudan on October 7, 2008. All three of those events were discovered on the watch of astronomer Richard Kowalski at the Catalina Sky Survey. Luckily, 2014 AA struck over the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles away from the nearest landmass, Sky & Telescope reported at the time.

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