Asteroid warning: Astronomers identify rock that ‘could be dangerous to life on Earth’

Japan’s National Astronomical Observatory (NAO) tracked the potential asteroid threat after a fireball erupted over Kyoto in April 2017. Together with Kyoto Sangyo University, NAO astronomers have determined the fireball’s parent body – Asteroid 2003 YT1.

Astronomer Toshihiro Kasuga said: “The potential break-up of the rock could be dangerous to life on Earth.

“The parent body 2003 YT1 could break up and those resulting asteroids could hit the Earth in the next 10 million years or so, especially because 2003 YT1 has a dust production mechanism.”

Astronomers were first alerted the possibility of a larger space rock hurtling through the solar system after a slow fireball lit up the skies over Kyoto on April 29, 2017.

Compared to other fireballs created by asteroid debris, the burning meteor was brighter and slower.


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The fireball’s trajectory clued in the astronomers on its potential origin.

Dr Kasuga said: “We uncovered the fireball’s true identity.

“It has a similar orbit to that of the near-Earth asteroid 2003 YT1, which is likely its parent body.”

Asteroid 2003 YT1 is a so-called binary space rock, first observed in the solar system in 2003.

Binary asteroids typically comprise of a small rock dancing around a much larger asteroid or comet.

According to the NAO, Asteroid 2003 YT1 has been active in the past, cracking apart and releasing dust particles out into space.

The orbital debris was the source of the Kyoto fireball, much in the same way dusty comets produce the majority of Earth’s annual meteor showers.

The potential break-up of the rock could be dangerous to life on Earth

Toshihiro Kasuga, National Astronomical Observatory in Japan

Currently, the asteroid does not appear to show any signs of activity but the space rock could release more debris during closer passes of the Sun.

Astronomers dub this process the YORP effect – when an asteroid is warmed by the Sun, the space rock absorbs and converts some of that energy into movement.

The movement can, in turn, destabilise the asteroid enough to affect its trajectory or cause it to break apart into smaller pieces.

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YORP stands for Yarkovsky–O’Keefe–Radzievskii–Paddack effect.

Dr Kasuga said: “The released particles can enter Earth’s atmosphere and appear as fireballs, which is exactly what happened in 2017.”

The 2017 fireball was not large enough to be of any concerns to Earth’s safety since it only measured “a few centimetres” across.

Larger space rock fragments can, however, be devastating if they every slam into the planet.

In 2013, for instance, an undetected asteroid entered the atmosphere above Russia’s Chelyabinsk Oblast and exploded before reaching the ground.

The explosion was powerful enough to damage more than 7,000 buildings in a wide radius.

More than 1,000 people were also injured when the blast blew out windows and shattered the glass into sharp fragments.

Astronomers estimate the Chelyabinsk meteor only measured about 65.6ft (20m).

Dr Kasuga said: “The 2017 fireball and its parent asteroid gave us a behind-the-scenes look at meteors.

“Next, we plan to further research predictions for potentially hazardous objects approaching the Earth. Meteor science can be a powerful asset for taking advanced steps towards planetary defence.”

Dr Kasuga and his colleagues presented their findings on January 13 in The Astronomical Journal.

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