Boulder-Size Asteroid to Be Fireball Over Earth Monday

Victoria Jaggard
National Geographic News
October 6, 2008

A boulder-size asteroid discovered just a few hours ago will become a bright fireball when it enters Earth's atmosphere at about 10:46 eastern time tonight, astronomers announced.

The space rock—which is believed to be between 3 and 15 feet (1 and 5 meters) wide—is not a threat, as it will completely disintegrate before it reaches the ground, the scientists say.

The fiery meteor will likely be visible for a few seconds only to people in eastern Africa. The object will be traveling west to east at about 7.9 miles (12.8 kilometers) a second in the pre-dawn skies over Sudan.

But depending on its angle of entry, skywatchers in Europe might be able to see it, noted Tim Spahr, director of the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"Amateur astronomers are observing it [as it approaches] right now," Spahr said.

Fireballs this size are fairly common, he added, appearing on average once every few months.

But this is the first time astronomers have been warned of an asteroid approaching this close to Earth.

The space rock, dubbed 2008 TC3, was first spotted this morning by the Catalina Sky Survey observatory in Tucson, Arizona.

The Minor Planet Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California later both confirmed the high probability of atmospheric entry.

The NASA-funded Catalina program was designed to survey, catalog, and assess the nature of so-called near-Earth objects as part of a program to detect and deflect any that might threaten the planet.

"If the object was ten times the size [as the one detected today], we would have picked it up several days in advance," Spahr said.

"Then we could say, OK, you guys in Africa, pick up and move 50 miles [80 kilometers]."




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