Astronomer Discovers Asteroid Minutes Before It Slams Into Earth

Asteroid alert systems launched into action last week after an asteroid was found to be on a collision course with Earth fewer than two hours after it was discovered by a shocked astronomer.

The asteroid, called 2022 EB5, was discovered by Krisztián Sárneczky, an astronomer at the Konkoly Observatory in Hungary, who was having an uneventful night poring over telescope imagery when he noticed an unidentified spec of light.

Since it was not particularly bright or moving very fast, Sárneczky decided to let the telescope continue scanning the skies before returning to the same location in the sky around half an hour later. The spec of light had gone.

Sárneczky noticed it again in a different location, this time appearing as a streak in the sky as though it was traveling very fast due to the long exposure times of the telescope images.

Sárneczky was puzzled. He wondered how the object could have accelerated so much. At first he thought that he had actually stumbled upon two separate asteroids, but that couldn't have been the case since the first location was now devoid of any objects.

The only way his observations made sense was if the asteroid was approaching Earth—and fast. Using fresh data of the object's coordinates, Sárneczky made a calculation of when it would be likely to hit Earth, if it was indeed an incoming asteroid. The answer was an hour and a half.

"I've dreamed of such a discovery many times before, but I really never believed in it," the astronomer wrote on the Hungarian Astronomical Society's website. "It seemed so unlikely…"

Sárneczky uploaded his data to an asteroid confirmation page, which set off alarm systems at the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. It was soon determined that the asteroid was around 6.5 to 10 feet in size—luckily, relatively small. In addition, its predicted impact location was in the Norwegian Sea, meaning damage to a populated area seemed unlikely.

Sárneczky snapped several photos of the asteroid as it approached. His last photo of the asteroid was taken 10 minutes before impact when it was just 6,800 miles away from Earth, at which point it would have been traveling at around 16 kilometers per second or roughly 35,700 miles per hour.

2022 EB5
A short animation of 2022 EB5 streaking through the sky, made from still images captured by Krisztián Sárneczky. Krisztián Sárneczky
2022 EB5
A Klet' Observatory telescope image of 2022 EB5 streaking across the sky about 13 minutes before impact. The asteroid was detected less than two hours before it hit Earth. European Space Agency

Speaking to Newsweek, Sárneczky called the detection of the asteroid his proudest moment as an astronomer, despite having already discovered a comet so far this year.

Asked whether he was concerned about the asteroid ahead of its impact, he said: "Not really, because even after the first observations it seemed to be a relatively small body. If the impact had taken place over a populated area, it would not have caused any damage.

"It was a great opportunity to test the warning systems of ESA and NASA. Both systems worked great."

According to ESA, no visual detections of the asteroid's fireball had been found as of Tuesday, probably because its impact location was so remote. However, evidence of an atmospheric impact was gathered by infrasound detectors based in Iceland and Greenland. These detectors can pick up very low-frequency sounds caused by natural phenomena like earthquakes or indeed asteroid impacts.

Astronomers are constantly scanning the skies for asteroids, taking note of any that may pose a threat. Work is also ongoing to develop technology that could prevent an impending impact.

It's not uncommon for small asteroids to strike Earth. Ones of similar size to 2022 EB5 can be expected to collide with our planet every year, ESA states. However, there have only been five instances of such an asteroid being detected before impact.

Professor Peter Brown is director of the Elginfield Observatory at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. He told Newsweek he expects detection of small asteroids to become more common as technology advances.

"The detection of small asteroids is now becoming more routine with the maturation and advancement of asteroid surveys like ATLAS, PanSTARRs and the Catalina Sky Survey," he said. "I expect such observations to become more routine as additional survey capabilities come online, particularly the Vera Rubin Observatory which should detect several meter-sized impactors prior to collision per year when it comes online in 2023-2024."

Paul Chodas, director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press release: "Tiny asteroids like 2022 EB5 are numerous, and they impact into the atmosphere quite frequently—roughly every 10 months or so,"

"But very few of these asteroids have actually been detected in space and observed extensively prior to impact, basically because they are very faint until the last few hours, and a survey telescope has to observe just the right spot of sky at the right time for one to be detected."

Asteroid
A stock photo shows an illustration of an asteroid very close to Earth. Astronomers are constantly monitoring asteroids in case any of them pose a threat to Earth. dzika_mrowka/Getty