Incoming!!!

By Phil Plait | October 6, 2008 1:50 pm

Update: we’re about an hour away here (it’s 1:30 UT as I write this) and I’m not seeing much more on this. I hope we’ll get some footage of it as it breaks up… in the meantime, check out this animation of what the asteroid will see as it comes in. AWESOME.

Stardust reentering Earth’s air
The meteor may resemble this picture of the
Stardust probe re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Thanks to my old friend Dan Durda, I just heard that an object a couple of meters across will enter the Earth’s atmosphere in a few hours! This poses no real danger to anyone, so don’t fret. A diameter of two meters means it’ll break up in our atmosphere, and most likely at worst rain down a few small rocks. You wouldn’t want one falling on your head, of course, but the odds of that are incredibly small.

The object is called 2008 TC3, and it was discovered very recently. It’s really faint, which is how they know it’s small. It’s predicted to burn up over Africa:

Steve Chesley (JPL) reports that atmospheric entry will occur on 2008 Oct 07 0246 UTC [Oct 6 at 10:46 p.m. Eastern US time] over northern Sudan.

That means it could break up over Darfur. Perfect.

Anyway, this will be a spectacular meteor! The meteors (what some people call shooting stars) you see randomly on an average night are as small as a grain of sand. Something as big as a grape would make a very bright fireball. A rock two meters across will be incredible.

As Dan pointed out to me, it would be nice if some astronomers can get a spectrum of it before it burns up, then again as it burns up. Then, the big hope is that specimens will then be found and collected. This would provide great data tying meteorites with observations of asteroids in space!

I’ll have updates as I hear them.

And didn’t I promise more posts about this kind of stuff?

2:30 p.m.: Well, here’s the first update: no real new info, but the Center for Astrophysics just sent out a press release. Here it is:

CfA Release 2008-19
For Immediate Release

BOULDER-SIZED ASTEROID WILL BURN UP IN EARTH’S ATMOSPHERE TONIGHT

A tiny asteroid discovered just hours ago at an Arizona observatory will
enter Earth’s atmosphere harmlessly at approximately 10:46 p.m. Eastern time
tonight (2:46 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time). There is no danger to people or
property since the asteroid will not reach the ground. It is between 3 and
15 feet (1-5 m) in diameter and will burn up in the upper atmosphere, well
above aircraft heights. A brilliant fireball will be visible as a result.

“We want to stress that this object is not a threat,” said Dr. Timothy
Spahr, director of the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet
Center.

“We’re excited since this is the first time we have issued a prediction that
an object will enter Earth’s atmosphere,” Spahr added. Odds are between 99.8
and 100 percent that the object will encounter Earth, according to
calculations provided by Andrea Milani of the University of Pisa.

When a meteoroid (small asteroid) enters the atmosphere, it compresses the
air in front of it. That compression heats the air, which in turn heats the
object, causing it to glow and vaporize. Once it starts to glow, the object
is called a meteor.

“A typical meteor comes from an object the size of a grain of sand,”
explained Gareth Williams of the Minor Planet Center. “This meteor will be a
real humdinger in comparison!”

The meteor is expected to be visible from eastern Africa as an extremely
bright fireball traveling rapidly across the sky from northeast to
southwest. The object is expected to enter the atmosphere over northern
Sudan at a shallow angle.

“We’re eager for observations from astronomers near the asteroid’s approach
path. We really hope that someone will manage to photograph it,” said
Williams.

The Minor Planet Center, which is located at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center
for Astrophysics, serves as the worldwide clearinghouse for asteroid and
comet observations. It collects, checks and disseminates observations and
calculates orbits.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for
Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian
Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA
scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin,
evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

Comments (82)

  1. Dang you’re fast! I just got the NEO news about this 1 minute ago!

    You’re all over that Death from the Skies stuff, aren’t ya?

    :) :)

  2. drksky

    Gah!!!! You do a search for “asteroid 2008 TC3″ and the first hit that comes up is some woo site called godlikeproductions. Sigh…

    Nothing cool ever happens over the US skies. :(


  3. Here’s an image I made with Gravity Simulator, showing it impact Earth with a speed of over 12 km/s.

  4. IVAN3MAN

    If only this object would hit President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, I might start believing in God, again.

  5. Uh, dumb question time here: the PR I just got says it’s called: 8TA9D69 — assuming that’s the spaceguard survey number, correct?

  6. Uh, dumb question time here: the PR I just got says it’s called: 8TA9D69 — assuming that’s the spaceguard survey number, correct?

    Same object, 2008 TC3 is an official designation issued by the Minor Planet Center.

  7. drksky, as someone who spends alot of time in and near the Tropopause, I can assure you that some very cool things occur over the US skies ;)

    Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUBrxviguj0 for example

    BTW, when I first heard the title of Phil’s new book – Death From The Skies – I was worried he had been on one of my flights!

    BA, thanks for the heads-up.

  8. yes, I suspected as much… the official designation was not in the NEO news newsletter I just got…

    thanx

  9. how far away can you see these things…? as far as southern europe maybe?

  10. NoAstronomer

    Looking at the harvard link made me think of the Matrix movie – where the humans can read the numbers scrolling by on the screen to see what’s happening in the matrix.

  11. Stav

    Cool!
    Anybody has info on how far away the meteor will be seen? I suppose my question is about both the curve of the earth (at what height do meteors burn?) and the brightness of the meteor.

  12. If only a meteor would burn up over my house.

  13. Francesco

    I’m just wondering if this thing might be observable from central europe? Probably not, right?

  14. Jason

    DrSky, please don’t make fun of us GLP’ers! We’re not all wacky woo woos!

  15. Luckily, we can blast it with LHC black holes!

  16. This is really cool – how often do we get to know about these before they hit? Someone, somewhere needs a Twitter account we can all follow…

  17. rob

    how do you calculate odds for these things? 99.8% was quoted above. Does one look at slight perturbations from the data for the trajectory and run multiple simulations to find 998 out of a 1000 hit earth? or is it related to the uncertainty in the trajectory data and to within 3 or 4 standard deviations they know it will hit earth? or do they have some other method?

    if it doesn’t hit earth, does that mean that mercuries retrograde motion is to blame? or, if it doesn’t miss earth does that mean mercuries retrograde motion is to blame?

    something tells me no matter what happens, someone will blame it on mercury. or obama.

    has anyone contacted bruce willis to see if he can do anything about this?

  18. The amazing thing here is how well they’ve been able to track such a small object; the spaceguard dream may come true yet…

    ;)

  19. Christine Pulliam

    The Minor Planet Center guys wouldn’t hazard a guess as to how far away it might be visible, but they recommend anyone even remotely in that part of the world give it a try. So to our friends in Europe, go out and look! Who needs sleep, especially when this thing could be as bright as the full moon as it comes in.

  20. “or is it related to the uncertainty in the trajectory data and to within 3 or 4 standard deviations they know it will hit earth? or do they have some other method?”

    That’s the way. It sounds like 2-3 standard deviations though.

  21. Man, why does Darfur have all the luck?

  22. See this story for more details and links.

  23. Stav

    @Christine Pulliam: I guess I understand that they don’t want to deal with a herd of dissapointed astronomers… what about a direct line of sight, though? How far up is the burning supposed to take place?

  24. Christine Pulliam

    We’re talking tens of kilometers – maybe 30, 40, 50 km.

  25. Jason

    Phil, Any way to add a timezone to the blog entry footer? It’s not really useful in its current form… how do we have any idea when “tonight” is? Local time? Zulu? African time (since it’s supposed to hit in Africa) ?

    — October 6th, 2008 1:50 PM by Phil Plait in Astronomy, Cool stuff, DeathfromtheSkies! | 26 comments | RSS feed | Trackback > —-

    Thanks,
    A. Fan

  26. Jason, I gave the time/date of impact in the post in both UT and EDT.

  27. drksky

    @Jason – I apologize if I’ve stereotyped you unfairly, but I called it as the first few posts on the front page deemed. Just that small sampling made me want to not look further :)

  28. firemancarl

    Crap! I see 2012 got here early!!!!!!

  29. Russ

    If this object were not 5 meter but 20 meters Would that make a difference in its impact?

  30. This is just too cool. It’s pretty neat that we can see such a small object coming and track it.

  31. Is the ISS going to be in position to catch the spectra of the burn-up. Since they are up there they may as well do some science.

  32. Rick

    I believe the Arizona Meteor Crater was formed from an object estimated around 50 meters in diameter. So if the albedo of this object varies greatly from estimation and the object is larger than expected, we could be in for quite a show!

  33. themadlolscientist

    LOL @ Naked Bunny With a Whip and firemancarl!

    @ Bert Chadick: That’s what my Enquiring Mind wants to know.

  34. @Dan

    Bruce Willis wouldn’t be able to handle it.

    Armageddon was a horrible movie.

  35. jackINrome

    Hey all. Am in rome, italy and heading out of town to a spot from where I miht see 2008 TC3. Anyone have any layman’s pointers on how to be watching/filming the right part of the sky (other than the advertised “Northeast to Southwest”. I dunno Google earth/sky coordinates perhaps? Also does the fact that it should be seen crossing from Northeast to Southwest apply just to Sudan? If not by how much would the orientation change if the observer is in italy?
    Any help greatly appreciated.

    happy watching
    jack

  36. You fools! It’s a ship! It’s probably a Wraith Dart! The last thing we need is a Wraith loose on Earth. ;)

    Sorry, I’ve been watching a bunch of Stargate episodes today.

    Oh, and Phil… I’d have gone with “Heads up!” over “Incoming!”

  37. The story is really ‘taking off’ now, with several more press releases and articles as well as interesting animations – all linked from here (sidebar of lead story). The animation from the point of view of the asteroid is particularly cool …

  38. Jim Oberg

    ISS will be safe in the skies of Texas at the moment of impact, so the crew can sleep securely…

  39. @russ: Big time. Light show versus crater.

  40. Michelle

    HOLY SMOKES. Are you serious??

    My god, for once I wished I was in africa right now. This is AWESOME. They could see something 2 meters across? Coming our way?

    Amazing. I love science. I love telescopes!

  41. *sigh* athens’ skies were quiet.

  42. OK…. 10 minutes since the predicted impact.
    Looking for Eye Witness Accounts now, will post more on my site
    http://www.askthescienceguru.com/?p=103
    as it comes to hand.

  43. I Am The Hill Sphere Calculator

    The Hill Sphere of the rock before it vaporized was approximately 1.1 cm. from its center of mass. Stop me before I strike again!

  44. Regarding the impact point and time, what is the precision of these predictions? Are they about to predict that it will be in a given area with a high degree of certainty or are the measurements only good enough to predict that it will be most likely in a given area plus or minus a few hundred miles to within a given percent.

  45. i was an hour OFF?
    frak!

  46. Mang

    Small quibble, I thought there was an official dividing point at 5 m diameter below where something was a meteroid and above an asteroid.

    (Pluto must be having a chuckle over this).

  47. Christine Pulliam

    No post-“impact” data into the Minor Planet Center as of 11:20 p.m. EDT. Hopefully some observations were made of the big event, despite its relatively remote location (as far as major observatories go).
    Sadly, the CfA press release had an error (as anyone who viewed the animation that Phil linked to probably noted) – the asteroid came in from the west/SW headed east/NE, not the other way around. Sorry for the mistake.
    Mang – I’m not sure of the meteoroid/asteroid dividing line. As with dwarf planet/planet/brown dwarf, I suspect it’s somewhat arbitrary.

  48. strahlungsamt

    It’s the Lords of Nibiru that we were warned about some months back.

    Except that the LHC won’t be blasting a hole in the Van Allen Belts so they will just burn up and the Earth will be cursed.

    Now the Rapture will be cancelled.

  49. Francesco

    Did anyone see this thing? I tried but didn’t see anything from central europe.

  50. A KLM/Air France aircrew might have spotted the fireball. See:

    http://www.spaceweather.com/

  51. Oh: and you’d need to be within a few hundred kilometers of the impact point really to see the fireball. So no chance anyone in Europe would have seen the fireball itself.

  52. Interesting: my other e-mail address seems to be on a moderation list?!?

    Re-post then:

    It seems that a KLM/Air France airliner aircrew might have observed the fireball. See http://www.spaceweather.com

  53. alfaniner

    I’m kind of glad this showed up with little warning, the less to provoke hysteria.

  54. Sebastian

    German magazine der Spiegel reveals that the presidential race has gripped the astronomy community as well:

    [blockquote]
    Alain Maury, one of the best known asteroids and comets professionals, quoted a colleague in the Minor Planet Mailing List: “I would name this asteroid after Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Why? It is small, not particularly bright and will not leave any significant trace.”

    “Moreover, the presidential candidate John McCain, whose deputy Palin is slated to become, will probably remember when the asteroid has been formed. These heavenly bodies formed in the early days of the solar system and are thus about four billion years old.”
    [/blockquote]

    http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/weltall/0,1518,582593,00.html

  55. A chinstrap named Tango

    I live in Athens, Greece -Tribbles?.
    I won’t be very exact, I’m not an astronomer, and I’m not a native english speaker, so forgive my bad english.
    I was driving towards work at about 9:30am local time. As I was driving, I noticed something on the sky, I saw something in the SE sky.
    At first I thought it was the trail of a plane, but it didn’t quite seem like it. It was too short and too fluffy for that.
    Is there a possibility that this would be “it”?

  56. Eisnel

    If the asteroid was scheduled to enter at 2:45am UTC, then I think it would be 4:45am or 5:45am in Greece time (not exactly sure about your time zone).

  57. A chinstrap named Tango … no, that wouldn’t have been it. As Eisnel said, it would have been early morning 5:45 — I was in Athens, waiting like a dork an hour earlier.

    Glad to know I wouldn’t have seen it anyway.

  58. Mang

    Ok what next? No you tube video. There’s a comment on Astroengine about a facebook posting of a photo from a balcony – but I don’t do facebook – and it’s the only reference I’ve seen. No Earth shattering kaboom (sorry Marvin).

    I assume that if it missed or grazed that Catalina *might* pick it up again. But I have no idea the odds or how predictable its path might be. If I’d have to guess, I’d say largely predictable with a small chance of going off at a weird angle.

    Of course, it looks pretty remote so it could take a while for someone to get to somewhere that they could upload a video. If the correct track was SW-NE someone in Khartoum might have caught it. I’d think out of 2M people there should be someone out at night with a camera.

    Shame if it were missed.

  59. There are reports of pilots seeing this thing from Central Europe. Not sure how credible those reports are.

    http://weblogs.marylandweather.com/2008/10/predicted_meteor_may_have_been.html

    Predicted meteor may have been sighted
    A large meteor reportedly was sighted last night by a KLM airlines
    pilot near the time and place predicted by astronomers hours earlier.
    It was the first time astronomers have ever identified an Earth-bound
    space rock and predicted its arrival.

    Here’s the report, from an online rumor network for professional
    pilots:

    “The following potentially confirming report comes from Jacob Kuiper,
    General Aviation meteorologist at the National Weather Service in the
    Netherlands: “Half an hour before the predicted impact of asteroid
    2008 TC3, I informed an official of Air-France-KLM at Amsterdam
    airport about the possibility that crews of their airliners in the
    vicinity of impact would have a chance to see a fireball. And it was
    a success! I have received confirmation that a KLM airliner, roughly
    750 nautical miles southwest of the predicted atmospheric impact
    position, has observed a short flash just before the expected impact
    time 0246 UTC. Because of the distance it was not a very large
    phenomenon, but still a confirmation that some bright meteor has been
    seen in the predicted direction.”

    Another pilot reported the following:
    “Yes, I saw it from over central Europe – a bigger brighter trail
    than the usual shooting star, terminated by an explosion. All over in
    about a second, but definitely an unusual event.”

  60. Also, apparently an observatory in Spain caught a glimpse of 2008 TC3 about one hour before it entered the atmosphere:

    http://www.minorplanets.org/OLS/2008_TC3

    Farewell to a small asteroid that became a big fireball
    Earth Impactor 2008 TC3 en route to Northern Sudan
    tracked by La Sagra Sky Survey, Spain

    The above image is a small section from a much larger image, exposed
    while asteroid 2008 TC3 entered Earth’ shadow about one hour before
    expected atmospheric impact over northern Sudan. The image was made
    with one of La Sagra Sky Survey’s (LSSS) 45-cm f/2.8 telescopes. It
    is a six minute exposure tracked at siderial rate. Exposure start
    time was 2008 Oct. 07, 01:45:23 UT. The section shows a field which
    is half a degree wide, comparable to the size of the full moon. The
    asteroid moved from west (right) to east (left). At start of exposure
    it was at a distance of 29600 kilometers, approaching at a speed of
    7.61 kilometers per second. The periodic light variation along the
    early part of the trail indicates a fast rotation of the intruder
    around its spin axis. Long before the exposure ended, the trail got
    dimmer and completely invisible, confirming the predicted time of
    entry into Earth’ shadow.

    More images and information to come, as data reduction proceeds…

    About LSSS: The La Sagra Sky Survey is a survey for asteroids and
    comets, conducted at the Observatorio de La Sagra (OLS) in Andalusia,
    Spain. It is operated by the Observatorio Astronomico de Mallorca
    (OAM), Balearic Islands, Spain.

    About the asteroid: 2008 TC3 was discovered on 2008 Oct. 6 by the Mt.
    Lemmon Survey in Arizona.

  61. Dyldo

    Someone haaad to have gotten some video of it, right?

    Footage! Footage! Footage!

  62. Mang

    Maybe. Or not, one of the links off Space weather places this rock about here

    http://maps.google.ca/maps?oe=UTF-8&hl=en&ll=21.063997,33.299561&spn=3.485296,5.603027&t=h&z=8

    Very remote and near what looks like a disputed border no less.

  63. There have been several detections of the bolide by, let’s say, unusual means as I summarize here – and a cryptic notice the JPL just sent out could mean that the flash was seen by an early warning satellite. Stay tuned …

  64. teemignon

    Could it be possible to see it from Long Island City NY , I saw something looking like that object an hour ago , it was very far but speeding . I good a couple pictures. I was smoking a joint , so i had to take the pictures . I wish i could have seen it from a closer view

  65. Several more indirect and direct detections of the bolide have been reported, and yes, some “footage” (from a weather satellite) is included.

  66. Tod

    Sorry I’m late to the party, but the headline quoted in Phil’s update just had me giggling for days:

    “BOULDER-SIZED ASTEROID WILL BURN UP IN EARTH’S ATMOSPHERE TONIGHT”

    Just imagine what would happen if a Denver-sized asteroid plowed into our atmosphere.

    -tod

  67. moishe

    Darn.

    Can’t party yet, guys.

    All of that work and missed a pretty obvious and bright one on November 21 over Canada.

    Oops!

  68. kevin livin in menominee, MI

    I JUST SAW IT BURN UP! It was brighter then the full moon and did not break up at all. I live in Menominee, MI and was looking west when it came in from about 30 degrees above the horizon, it started just a tiny bit north of perfect west when it brightened first then moved faster and brighter curving downward noticeably at very high speed while leaving a dim red streak behind it. IT DID NOT BREAK UP AT ALL!!!!! I’ve seen meteors this bright before but never like this without breaking up. It was still bright when it fell below the trees at about 10 degrees west of north. IT is now 3:59 am and i saw it right at 3:29 am Central Time (US & Canada).

    My name is Kevin Alex Niemi and i may be one of few to have seen this so please get back to me if anybody hears of any other wittiness.

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