The sixth asteroid impact we saw coming

The sixth asteroid impact we saw coming

space security

11/24/2022
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Shortly

On November 19, asteroid 2022 WJ1 became one of many small asteroids to strike Earth, but only the sixth we’ve ever seen coming. For the second time this year, humanity has predicted an asteroid impact. The approx. 1 m high rock did not cause any damage and burned up as a conspicuous fireball in the sky over Toronto. The detection, warning and anticipation of this asteroid demonstrates our rapidly increasing ability to warn of asteroid impacts, however small.

Into the deep

sixth Sense

Time-lapse photo of 2022 WJ1 taken by astronomer Robert Weryk in Ontario, Canada

The first discovery of asteroid 2022 WJ1 was made on November 19 at 04:53 UTC (05:53 CET) as part of the Catalina Sky Survey – one of the main projects to detect and track near-Earth objects (NEOs). 2022, just under four hours before impact.

The new asteroid was first imaged by Catalina’s 1.5m Mt Lemmon telescope and reported to the Minor Planet Center (MPC) after four observations 38 minutes after the initial discovery at 05:31 UTC.

These four observations were enough to chart the asteroid’s path across the sky, and within minutes of these “astrometers” being released, ESA’s internal monitoring software reported that the object had a ~20% chance of impacting Earth and possibly somewhere in North America within the next two to three hours. Minutes later, other impact monitoring programs also sent out alerts outlining a similar scenario.

The first impact corridor calculated at 05:36 UTC by ESA’s Meerkat tool from early observations of asteroid 2022 WJ1

Following the potential impact notifications, observers in Catalina and elsewhere in the US received follow-up observations of the new asteroid. Less than 30 minutes after initial triggering, the impact was confirmed with excellent precision: the small asteroid, probably less than a meter in diameter, would impact somewhere between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, near the US-Canada border, around 08:00 : 27 UTC (09:27 CET).

Exactly at the predicted time, an approximately 1m asteroid hit the atmosphere and became a glowing fireball over the expected location. Find out more about this event on the ESA Near-Earth Object Coordination Center (NEOCC) web portal.

Asteroid Impact: What’s the Risk?

Due to the formation of the solar system, small objects are in the majority in relation to their total population. It is estimated that there are 40-50 million small asteroids and “only” 1,000 of the largest, giant “planet killers”. The rest is somewhere in between.

Infographic: Asteroid danger explained

We currently know of more than 1.1 million asteroids, although there are many more out there. Of those discovered, about 30,600 fly in an orbit that brings them close to Earth’s orbit. These are the “Near Earth Asteroids” (NEAs).

The comforting news is that almost all of the giant asteroids have been found — more than 95% — and none are significant for the next hundred years. Astronomers tirelessly search for each one.

Chelyabinsk asteroid trail

Small, meter-sized asteroids hit Earth every few weeks. They contribute to our understanding of asteroid populations, fireballs and their composition, but they are not a high priority when it comes to planetary defense because they pose no real threat.

The objects we’re most worried about are those “Goldilocks asteroids,” which are big enough to do damage if they hit, and there are enough of them out there that we know are will do at some point. The infamous Chelyabinsk impact of February 2013 and the Tunguska impact of June 1908 fall into this category, and there is still a long way to go when it comes to discovering these asteroids.

Hera at Didymos

For this reason, ESA’s Planetary Defense Office is planning new ground telescopes and missions in space to improve our asteroid detection capabilities, sending the Hera mission to the Dimorphos asteroid hit by NASA’s DART mission to determine the asteroid deflection and is working with the international community to prepare for the scenario in which a larger asteroid is spotted on a collision course.

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