Scientists Map 22-Million-Year Long Journey of an Asteroid to Earth

It marks the first time researchers map out the entire journey of an asteroid which hit Earth in 2018.
Fabienne Lang
The fragment analyses of 2018LA indicated that it was buried beneath asteroid Vesta's surface (pictured).NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

An asteroid known as 2018LA came crashing down into the Kalahari Desert in Botswana on June 2, 2018. Now, for the first time, a team of scientists has put together a meteorite's entire journey from its location in our Solar System to the moment it hits Earth. This particular journey took 22-million-years.

It also marks only the second time that scientists have observed an asteroid in space before it becomes a meteorite as it enters our Earth's atmosphere. 

The research opens doors to new insights into our Solar System's past. The international research team consisted of the NASA Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute in the U.S., which involved scientists from The Australian National University (ANU) and Curtin University in Australia. 

The team published its findings in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science.

Mapping out an asteroid's journey

The team used two of NASA's hazardous asteroid-hunting telescopes and the ANU SkyMapper telescope in Australia to map the asteroid's one-way journey to Earth. ANU Associate Professor Christian Wolf said the asteroid had a five-foot (1.5-meter) diameter, weighed about 12,566 pounds (5,700kg), and traveled at around 37,282 mph (60,000kph) before breaking up in Earth's atmosphere 16.7 miles (27km) above us, and hurtling to the ground.   

CCTV footage of the asteroid's last moments before it came crashing down into the dusty desert ground was captured, showing how it looked just like a massive fireball racing towards Earth. 

By closely observing the asteroid's journey, the team of scientists was able to determine its origins, which lead it back to Vesta, the second-largest asteroid in the Solar System and the only one bright enough to be visible to the naked eye. 

As ANU astronomer Dr. Christopher Onken explained, this research is crucial to better understand the Solar System's past, "The oldest known materials found both in Vesta and in the meteorite are Zircon grains that date back to more than 4.5 billion years ago, during the early phase of the Solar System." 

Another scientist on the team and a Curtin astronomer, Dr. Hadrien Devillepoix, said that analyses of the meteorite's fragments indicate it was buried deep beneath Vesta's surface before it was ejected from it. They are also complementary to JAXA's Hayabusa-2 probe's samples.

This type of research into our Solar System's past is incredibly useful for scientists to better understand the types of materials asteroids are made up of, and how they could affect Earth when they crash into us. 


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