Astronomers spot asteroid hours before turning into a fireball over Europa

It could be one of the most observed space rocks that no one knew existed just a day before. An asteroid officially designated 2023 CX1 (it also wore the temporary designation Sar2667 during its approach to Earth) was spotted by an observatory in Hungary on Sunday night and seven hours later burned as a bright fireball over the English Channel in front of a potential audience millions.

According to the European Space Agency, this is only the seventh time a meteoroid has actually been sighted in space before impacting the atmosphere. The tiny size of the mini car – at the time of discovery it was only one meter wide – makes the feat all the more impressive. It was first discovered by Krisztián Sárneczky at the Piszkéstető Observatory, who also made a similar discovery Asteroid 2022 EB5 last year, just before it experienced its own demise in our atmosphere.

Its small size also virtually ensures that it poses no real threat to anyone on the ground, as all but the smallest bits are safely burned before reaching the surface.

In the seven hours that elapsed between Sárneczky’s original find and the impact, observatories around the world became active to take a look at the imminent impact and refine its trajectory. A second observation just 40 minutes later confirmed the discovery was not a false alarm, and several others gave the moment and location where they would affect the upper atmosphere: just over the English Channel in the early hours of the morning.

The predictions proved spot on and the 2023 CX1 didn’t disappoint, lighting up the morning skies over France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK and even Germany.

“It is likely that some fragments of the meteorite survived the atmospheric pass and fell somewhere near the coast north of Rouen in Normandy, France,” ESA wrote in a statement on Monday.

It is becoming clear that we are entering a new era in detecting and tracking small asteroids and other near-Earth objects, especially when they are on a collision course with our planet. The last time astronomers caught one just hours before impact was in November. This time across the Great Lakes and even smaller than 2023 CX1.

The other handful of upcoming impactors were seen in 2019, 2018, 2014, and 2008, so this is a relatively newly acquired superpower for humans to be able to spot even the tiniest incoming piece of cosmic debris.

ESA credits new sky-scanning observatories like the Meerkat facility in South Africa and other eyes on the near-Earth environment for the surge in discoveries.

In addition to a little more confidence in our planetary protection abilities, it also means an improved warning system for night sky watchers, who no longer have to rely on utter chance to catch a stray fireball in the night sky.

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