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BRIDGEPORT, WV (S-M) - October 15, 2008 - Last week, a small object which measured about 4 meters in diameter crashed into the Earth's atmosphere above northern Sudan. Though such events occur several times a year, this is the first time such an object has been discovered before it impacted the Earth.


The object was first spotted on October 5 by the Catalina Sky Survey's 1.5 meter telescope on Mount Lemmon in Arizona. Because of the object's rapid apparent motion, the discovery was hastily posted on the Internet as requiring further observations. At least two dozen astronomers around the world observed the object over the following hours. The situation developed rapidly, and the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union issued 25 circulars concerning the object. On the afternoon of October 6, a circular was issued which made it clear - the object, given the designation 2008 TC3, would enter the Earth's atmosphere on the morning of October 7, though it was noted that "the absolute magnitude indicates that the object will not survive passage through the atmosphere."


At 5:46am local time on the morning of the 7th, the object exploded over northern Sudan with an energy roughly equal to 1,500 tons of TNT. An airliner almost 1,000 miles away reported seeing the blast, but the remote area of the Nubian desert under the blast was nearly uninhabited, and eyewitness reports have been hard to come by. A few satellites did detect the heat from the explosion.


"The real story here is not the actual impact, but the fact that scientists saw the object coming," said Senior Editor Glen Ward. "Over the next decade, new automated sky surveys will become operational which will make such discoveries commonplace. Computing power has increased so greatly that by 2020, these surveys may be turning up the majority of objects over 1 meter which are heading our way. Such objects hit us many times each year, and the potential is not so much for any real damage to be done, but for a prediction to cause undo concern among the public. These things are not kept a secret, and the process through which the orbits are determined, using observations from all sorts of observers from around the world, ensures that by the time a threat is realized, the word will already be out."


In September of 2007, an object struck Peru which created a crater 15 meters across. The object narrowly missed a village, and heat from the impact vaporized arsenic-containing groundwater, causing some minor health problems. "Collisions like that are not too rare," said Ward. "With the new surveys, in the next twenty years it is likely that we will actually detect such an object before impact. If it is found to be coming down anywhere near a populated area, there will be some people who will want to do something about it. Despite the small chance of anyone being killed, this kind of thing can cause concern among the public."


In 1979, the reentry of the Skylab station caused public concern the world over. "The chances of anyone being hit were slim, but it was still a media event," said Associate Editor Rigsley Berra. "You can only imagine what the media could do if a small asteroid, with a mass of tens or hundred of tons, was found to be heading for an entry over North America, at a speed of tens of thousands of miles per hour. The only good thing about this is that we probably won't see these objects until the are pretty close to us, and so the media won't have time to work up a frenzy."



Astronomy From West Virginia


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