January 30, 2023

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A tiny space rock crashed into Earth last week (and there's just something special about it)

A tiny space rock crashed into Earth last week (and there’s just something special about it)

Scientists saw the effect coming! And this does not happen often.

Last week, a small space rock was on a collision course with Earth. By the way, this is not the first time. The Earth is regularly bombarded with space rocks – often in the form of tiny particles. Still, last week’s special happened. It’s the sixth time ever that astronomers have seen the impact coming!

2022 WY1
It is a space rock named 2022 WJ1. The large stone about one meter high did not cause any damage and completely burned up in the earth’s atmosphere. Eyewitnesses saw a bright fireball lighting up the night sky.

Spacestone 2022 WJ1 leaves a bright, glowing trail as it burns through Earth’s atmosphere. Photo: R. Weryk

The discovery of 2022 WY1 is due to Catalina Sky Survey One of the largest projects devoted to the discovery of near-Earth objects. This telescope scans large areas of the night sky, looking for new objects moving against a background of “moving” stars. The space rock was discovered less than four hours before the impact. Then it was filmed using Mt. lemon telescope.

a path
Thanks to follow-up observations, astronomers have been able to plot the exact trajectory of 2022 WY1. Astronomers predicted that there is a 20% chance that the space rock will hit Earth, perhaps somewhere in North America, in the next two to three hours. This was soon revised. For example, experts assumed that a small asteroid, possibly less than a meter in diameter, would burn up in Earth’s atmosphere somewhere between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. And at the exact time that was predicted, witnesses did indeed see a bright streak in the night sky, caused by a space rock less than a meter away at the predicted location.

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The second time this year…
Astronomers saw an impact coming as unique. Most asteroids that hit Earth were not discovered until many (millions of) years after the collision. About 200 known craters on Earth tell an impressive story of how our planet – and life – formed through violent collisions with space rocks. Rarely is an asteroid detected before impact. 2022 WY1 is only sixth. By the way, this is the second time this year that humanity has seen an upcoming asteroid collision. also Space Rock 2022 EB5 Astronomers discovered it last March even before it was burning up in the atmosphere. These events prove that our ability to detect “potentially hazardous asteroids” is improving rapidly.

…and certainly not the last time
This probably won’t be the last time Earth will have to count on a visit from an asteroid. It is estimated that there are about 40 to 50 million small space rocks flitting across the solar system. Every few weeks, a small asteroid about 1 meter in size hits Earth. However, there is no need to be afraid of this: they do not pose a threat. It varies with really large specimens, also called “planet killers”. However, these occur to a much lesser extent: for example, there are “only” 1,000 of them here in the cosmic backyard. By the way, due to their high incidence, they are easy to spot.

land mowers
To date, astronomers have mapped more than 1.1 million asteroids — although many may still be waiting to be discovered. Of the space rocks we target, about 30,600 are classified as near-Earth objects. Space rocks venturing close to Earth. At present, more than 2,200 potentially dangerous asteroids are known to be closely monitored by astronomers. ESA also has its own list of 1,427 objects with increased risk. But there is no real cause for concern. Meanwhile, astronomers have tracked and mapped the majority of the largest and potentially destructive asteroids. This indicates that, at this point, no asteroid currently known will pose a serious threat to Earth for the next 100 years.

Photo: ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The challenge now is to find medium-sized asteroids a few hundred meters in diameter. New and advanced telescopes are being built for this purpose, such as the modern Flyeye telescope. In addition, there are a lot of experiments with deviant asteroids, such as DART mission prove. Therefore, there is no need to fear for our lives. In fact, this may just lead to more frequent detection of space rocks before they impact Earth’s atmosphere. And so we may also often see asteroids, just like 2022 WJ1, leaving a beautiful light trail in the sky.

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