Small asteroid, first spotted hours earlier, disintegrates over Africa

Cristina Cross
June 5, 2018

"It shows our impact prediction models are adequate to respond to much larger and more threatening objects".

This weekend, NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) and the IAU Minor Planet Center confirmed that an asteroid (named 2018 LA) was headed our way just hours before it struck the atmosphere above Botswana.

A boulder-sized asteroid on a collision course with Earth reportedly disintegrated in the atmosphere, lighting up the sky over Botswana, Africa, according to NASA. According to CNEOS records, the asteroid's distance from Earth's centre, at closest approach, was calculated to be 5,874 km, which is well inside the planet's radius of 6,371 km.

The asteroid, estimated to be only about two metres across, was first discovered on June 2 by the Catalina Sky Survey, operated by the University of Arizona. That trajectory plot was the first hint that 2018 LA could hit Earth.

Nasa's Planetary Defence team glimpsed a six-foot-wide asteroid called 2018 LA on Saturday morning. Researchers there quickly determined its trajectory put the rock on a probable collision course with Earth. 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. About eight hours after these images were taken, the asteroid entered Earth's atmosphere (about 12:44 p.m. EDT, 6:44 p.m. local Botswana time), and disintegrated in the upper atmosphere near Botswana, Africa. This is because asteroid detection depends on telescopes picking up sunlight reflected off the asteroid's surface.

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NASA officials said the scramble among scientists and observers of the small asteroid was merely a good training exercise.

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

An asteroid four times as big exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013 in an airburst blowing out windows and injuring over 1,500 people with cuts caused by flying glass and debris. Although they started off at the top of the atmosphere travelling at tens of thousands of kilometres per hour, by the time they reached the ground, they would only be moving at around 300-500 km/h - at the most, a quarter of the velocity of a bullet. Expert Geoff Notkin tells us how! The signal is consistent with an atmospheric impact over Botswana.

"It is also only the second time that the high probability of an impact was predicted well ahead of the event itself", said Chodas. All three of those events were discovered on the watch of astronomer Richard Kowalski at the Catalina Sky Survey.

The ATLAS asteroid survey obtained two additional observations hours before impact, which were used by Scout to confirm the impact would occur, and narrowed down the predicted location to southern Africa.

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