Studying asteroid before impact may lead to advance warning system for Earth

March 26th, 2009 - 12:01 pm ICT by ANI  

London, March 26 (ANI): Astronomers, for the first time, have observed a rare asteroid as it was hurtling towards our planet and have captured the only spectrum of it before it exploded in our atmosphere, which may lead to an advanced warning system for Earth.

The observation was made by UK astronomers, using the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) William Herschel Telescope on La Palma.

The asteroid in question - 2008 TC3 - an 80 ton, 4 meter asteroid with a rare composition, was first sighted by US telescopes on 6th October 2008.

Subsequent observations by an international army of professional and amateur astronomers led to the discovery that it was racing towards our planet and was due to enter the atmosphere the following morning.

“This was the first ever predicted impact of an asteroid with the Earth and the very first time an asteroid of any size has been studied before impact,” said Professor Alan Fitzsimmons, from the Queen’s University Belfast.

“The faint observed brightness implied a small size, which in turn meant there was little advance warning,” he added.

According to Fitzsimmons, “It was important to try and figure out what type of asteroid it was before impact, which would give us a better idea of its size and where it came from.”

“This event shows we can successfully predict the impact of asteroids even with a short warning time, and obtain the astronomical observations necessary to estimate what will happen when the asteroid reaches us,” he said.

The spectrum gathered by the UK astronomers allowed them to obtain information on the size and composition of the asteroid and to establish the first direct link between an asteroid and the individual meteorites produced as it breaks up in our atmosphere.

Not only does this help to validate the whole process of remotely surveying asteroids, but comparing the asteroid and meteorite data tells us that 2008 TC3 may have only spent a few million years existing in the Inner Solar system before it hit our planet.

“This asteroid was made of a particularly fragile material that caused it to explode at a high 37 km altitude, before it was significantly slowed down, so that the few surviving fragments scattered over a large area,” explained Dr. Peter Jenniskens of the SETI institute in California.

“The recovered meteorites were unlike anything in our meteorite collections up to that point,” he added. (ANI)

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