Burning asteroid lights up the sky just hours after it was discovered: ScienceAlert

For the seventh time, astronomers have spotted an asteroid in space hours before it plummets to Earth in flames.

In images taken at 20:18:07 UTC on February 12, asteroid 2023 CX1, also known as Sar2667, was detected by astronomer Krisztián Sárneczky from Konkoly Observatory’s Piszkéstető Station in Hungary. It seemed to be “nothing special at first”, Sárneczky noted on twitter – just a normal object in near-Earth space.

But then the telescope recorded the asteroid a second time, and the discovery was reported to the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center.

Based on these and other follow-up observations, the scientists were able to calculate the trajectory of 2023 CX1. Their results indicated a 100% probability of impact, down to the approximate time it would arrive and even where the asteroid – at the time a meteor, an object that entered Earth’s atmosphere – would hit the globe.

Your estimates placed the moment of impact between 02:50 and 03:03 UTC, over the English Channel that separates France from the United Kingdom. And sure enough, at 02:59 UTC, 2023 CX1 turned into a spectacular fireball illuminating the skies as it broke apart into a glowing pile of falling debris. Any of these smaller rocks that may have made landfall were likely found off the coast of France, north of the city of Rouen.

There are a number of reasons why this detection is so amazing. Measuring only about 1.1 meters (3.3 feet) in diameter, 2023 CX1 is one of the smallest impactors detected before entering the atmosphere. And while only seven of those detections were made, the 2023 CX1 is the third in the last 12 months. That means we’re getting much better at spotting potential meteorites well before they hit.

The other six asteroids that were detected before entry, and whose names reflect the years they were discovered, were 2008 TC3, which was about 4 meters in diameter; 2014 AA, 3 meters wide; 2018 LA, also three meters wide; 2019 MO with 6 meters in diameter; 2022 EB5, which was about 2 meters in diameter, was sighted 2.5 hours before impact and also discovered by Sárneczky; and 2022 WJ1, just 1 meter in diameter, detected 4 hours before impact.

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There are actually quite a few rocks in a path that risk them getting into near-Earth space as they orbit the Sun. These are called near-Earth asteroids, and at the time of writing, astronomers have discovered and cataloged 31,291 of them. Most of them are quite small and probably not dangerous; like 2023 CX1, they will burn like fireballs as they fall through the atmosphere, breaking up and raining down pieces of much smaller debris.

Astronomers are confident that they are aware of almost all near-Earth asteroids that can cause serious damage. None of these, known potentially hazardous asteroids, will come close enough to Earth in the next century to cause concern.

There’s always the possibility that we’ve missed a sneaky boulder or two, or that new threats could be thrown our way, so it’s only sensible to brush up on our potential impact detection skills. Also, having early warning of meteor fireballs will mean more people will have the opportunity to observe these spectacular events.

Scientists may also be better prepared to make more detailed observations as the fireballs streak across the sky and crumble to dust. Exactly how these rocks burn and break apart is not fully understood; learning more about the process will not only help us better understand asteroids and meteors, but also drive the risk assessment for other incoming space rocks.

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