The Hoba meteorite in Namibia, Africa, the largest known
meteorite found; approximately the size of 2008 TC3 before
it burned up in our atmosphere.
News Flash! Asteroid 2008 TC3, on a collision trajectory with Earth, made a meteoric atmospheric entry into the skies above Sudan, Central Africa Tuesday morning, October 7th (local time-about 7:46 PM PDT). Entering the atmosphere at a speed of 12.8 kilometers per second, it exploded with the force of a low-level nuclear bomb…

Wait a moment… an asteroid you say? Hitting the Earth? Isn’t that supposed to spell some kind of disaster, such as Dino-slaughter? Isn’t that something we send people like Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood to deal with before it becomes a problem down here on Earth?

Okay, so Asteroid 2008 TC3 wasn’t an Earth-killer, but rather a crowd-thriller. It wasn’t miles across-not even tens of meters across. It was, perhaps, a few meters in size, similar in volume to mid-size car. In fact, it didn’t even hit the Earth’s surface, but vaporized in the atmosphere.

Sounds a bit anticlimactic-and that’s not the half of it. It’s not even a rare event! Objects of this size are believed (and sometimes observed) to enter Earth’s atmosphere a few times each year. So what’s the blog deal?

The blog deal is this: this is the first time that an object this size has been detected approaching the Earth a significant period of time before actually impacting-in this case, about a day. 2008 TC3 was detected by the Mount Lemmon telescope in Arizona on Monday. The detection was reported to the Minor Planet Center, which collects such observations from observatories large and small (including Chabot Space & Science Center) in order to track and predict possible Earth impactors. In turn, the MPC alerted NASA of the impending impact.

Observers on the ground reported the fireball lit up the skies with the intensity of the Full Moon. A nearby airliner (not in danger, as the fireball exploded tens of kilometers above the ground, well above the airliner’s flight path) reported seeing a bright flash.

In a sense, this event was kind of a dress rehearsal for the international system of predicting, and possibly defending against, impacts on Earth by much larger asteroids and comets. We already know of thousands of Near Earth Objects (NEOs-asteroids and comets that cross Earth’s orbit and are large enough to cause a catastrophe should they strike the Earth). It is also expected that there are many thousands more that we haven’t yet detected, being small enough to “fly under the radar” of our NEO detecting network.

Early detection and sustained tracking of NEOs is key to the protection plan against impact disaster. If we can accurately predict an impact far enough in advance, we could potentially send a spacecraft to it and gently “nudge” it off course and deflect the eventual impact.

So ends the existence of another chunk of rock that had, up to that point, been serenely orbiting the Sun for billions of years…

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Asteroid 2008 TC3 Strikes Earth! 12 June,2013Ben Burress

Author

Ben Burress

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ.

Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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