Asteroid discovery: Rare space rock fragment found

Researchers have found part of an asteroid that turned into a blazing fireball as it disintegrated over southern Africa last month.

Experts from Botswana, South Africa, Finland and the U.S. found a piece of the asteroid, dubbed 2018 LA in Botswana´s Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The boulder-size asteroid was estimated to be about 6 feet across, small enough to safely disintegrate in Earth’s atmosphere.

The space rock disintegrated several miles above the Earth’s surface. Videos posted to YouTube reportedly show the fireball streaking across the night sky, including one captured on a South African farm’s security camera.

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2018 LA was first detected by the Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Ariz., which is funded by NASA and is operated by the University of Arizona.

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The meteroite fragment found in Botswana (Peter Jenniskens)

“This is the third time in history that an asteroid inbound to hit Earth was detected early and only the second time that fragments were recovered,” explained the University of Helsinki in a statement. “After disruption, the asteroid fragments were blown by the wind while falling down, scattering over a wide area.”

Experts from the SETI Institute in California and the Finnish Fireball Network calculated the meteorite’s landing area in Botswana.

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“The importance of the find is two-fold: It has enormous scientific value and it allows to better calibrate the so-called ‘Earth Defense’ against impacting asteroids,” said the University of Helsinki.

A Meteor glowing as it enters the Earth's atmosphere

Illustration picture (iStock)  (James Thew)

In 2016, NASA opened a new office to track asteroids and comets that come too close to Earth, known as the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO). The PDCO formalizes the agency’s existing program for detecting and tracking near-earth objects (NEOs), which NASA has been studying since the 1970s.

The space rock that streaked across the skies of Southern Africa was much smaller than the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013, injuring more than 1,000 people, which was estimated to be about 56 feet wide.

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A small chunk of an asteroid or comet is also known as a meteoroid. When it enters Earth's atmosphere, it becomes a meteor or fireball or shooting star. The pieces of rock that hit the ground, valuable to collectors, are meteorites.

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The search team identifying the spot where the meteorite was found.  (Peter Jenniskens)

Earlier this year, a meteor made headlines when it flashed across the sky in Michigan. The blazing fireball sent meteorite hunters scrambling to find fragments of the rare space rock.

A team of scientists have recently been scanning the Pacific Ocean depths to find fragments of a huge meteor that flashed across the skies of the Pacific Northwest on March 7, 2018, before hitting the ocean. The meteor was visible in parts of Washington state, Oregon and British Columbia, according to the American Meteor Society.

On Sunday a fireball, or bright meteor, was visible in nine Midwest states as it flashed across the night sky.

Fox News’ Jennifer Earl and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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