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Don't look up: When an asteroid was discovered moments before it hit Earth

Astronomer David Rankin discovered 2022 WJ1 just hours before it hit Earth last Saturday.

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Asteroid
Asteroids are remnants of the formation of the solar system. (Representative Image)

In Short

  • Astronomer David Rankin discovered 2022 WJ1 just hours before it hit
  • The mini asteroid was not traveling in a straight, instead, it was taking a sharp turn
  • It was recognised as the smallest asteroid ever discovered in space

By India Today Web Desk: Remember the Leonardo Di Capri starrer Don't Look Up, a film depicting the discovery of a cataclysmic asteroid that destroys life on Earth as we know it. Last week, an astronomer working at the Mount Lemmon Observatory in Arizona had a similar moment. While his discovery did not affect life on Earth, the asteroid he found crashed into Earth moments later.

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Astronomer David Rankin discovered 2022 WJ1 just hours before it hit Earth and was captured in footage and cameras in Canada. Less than 3 feet in diameter, the asteroid was detected last Saturday, just hours before it managed to streak through a fiery entry into Earth's atmosphere.

Earth is surrounded by asteroids that are remnants of the formation of the solar system and are in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. At times, these asteroids manage to eject out of the gravitational pull and thus begin a celestial dance of fire and ice with the Sun. Observatories across the world are used to look at and establish the trajectories of these space rocks.

As Rankin began his shift last Saturday, the observatory picked up a small rock zipping past the sky from the west in a unique trajectory. The mini asteroid was not traveling in a straight, instead, it was taking a sharp turn inwards and its destination became increasingly clear as the observations sharpened. It was headed for Earth.

While the space rock was inching closer, it gained a reputation as observations indicated that it was a tiny asteroid, so tiny that it instantly was recognised as the smallest asteroid ever discovered in space. The astronomer used optical observations to estimate its size, which came down to just 3 feet in diameter. Rankin then forwarded the images he had taken to the Minor Planet Center, which is known for clearing the observations and establishing the validity of the observed object.

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The team at Minor Planet Center entered the data into Scout, which provides trajectory analysis and hazard assessment for recently detected objects. The estimates from data cleared the target was Earth. Chance of impact - 25 per cent. This figure went up to 50 per cent and 100 per cent as more and more observations poured in.

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There was no denying this thing was hurtling toward home and it was going to crash.

Rankin then raised the alarm and informed other astronomers of the possible impact. As predicted, the asteroid arrived burning up in the atmosphere over the Great Lakes, close to London, Ontario. The asteroid was seen by several people as it buzzed through the sky, leaving behind a trail of light as it burned.

While the size of the asteroid was nothing to be worried about, the fact that the system could find such objects and raise an alert ahead of their impact is critical for space defense.

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