Asteroid Day: Incredible Image Shows 340 Million-year-old Asteroid Impact Crater From Space

The European Space Agency (ESA) has released a fascinating image of a meteorite impact crater in the African nation of Chad.

The photo was snapped in 2017 by the astronaut Tim Peake, who was in orbit above the Earth on board the International Space Station at the time.

The Aorounga crater—which measures 7.8 miles in diameter—is thought to have been created by a meteorite that struck the Earth less than 345 million years ago. Scientists think that the original crater was buried, before being eroded. This, in turn, created the ring pattern we can see today.

Aorounga is a poignant reminder of the dangers that our planet faces from such impacts. Although we have not had significant impact for more than a century, Earth has been struck by countless space rocks throughout its history.

Most notable of these, perhaps, is the asteroid that is credited with helping to wipe out the dinosaurs when it struck the Yucatan Peninsula around 65 million years ago.

The ESA has released the picture of the crater in the run-up to Asteroid Day, a U.N.-recognized global public awareness campaign designed to educate people around the world about asteroids (as well as other space rocks): their characteristics, their role in the solar system, how we could potentially exploit their resources, the dangers they pose and how we can protect our planet from impacts.

Asteroid Day always takes place on June 30 to mark the anniversary of Earth's last major impact event—a large explosion in 1908 over a remote area of Siberia that has been attributed to a disintegrating space rock.

While the explosion is not known to have caused any deaths due to the sparsely populated nature of the region, it did flatten around 770 square miles of forest—akin to the area of a major metropolitan city—knocking down an estimated 80 million trees. The blast that the exploding object produced was about 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

In celebration of Asteroid Day, large and small events—most of which are independently organized— ranging from lectures to live concerts and community educational programs will be held around the world.

One of the main aims of Asteroid Day is to pressure world leaders to increase funding for asteroid tracking and discovery programs in order to help prevent future impacts.

"Central to Asteroid Day is the 100x Declaration, calling for the 100-fold increase in the detection and monitoring of asteroids," according to a statement from the Asteroid Day organizers. "Signed to date by more than tens of thousands of people around the world, the Declaration resolves to 'solve humanity's greatest challenges to safeguard our families and quality of life on Earth in the future."

Asteroid Day was founded in 2014 by Brian May, astrophysicist and lead guitarist of the band Queen, Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, filmmaker Grig Richters and Danica Remy, president of the B612 Foundation—a non-profit dedicated to planetary science and defense against impacts.

To date, scientists have catalogued just over 20,000 so-called Near-Earth objects (NEOs)—asteroids and comets whose orbits pass within 121 million miles of the sun. The vast majority of these are asteroids.

NASA has several ongoing asteroid search programs which scan the skies every night for such objects, as does the ESA.

"These are large optical telescopes with wide fields of view, Paul Chodas from NASA's Center for Near Earth Object Studies, told Newsweek. "Three or four images are taken of every patch of sky, and computer software used to detect objects that move over the course of the hour or so that these images span. Once detected, asteroids are tracked optically by astronomers at other telescopes for as long as they are bright enough to show up in images, or until they pass into the daytime sky."

"Our role at CNEOS is calculate the orbits of NEOs using the sky coordinates measured in these images, and project ahead days, months or years to predict when they will next be observable," he said. "Some NEOs have been tracked for many decades, and their orbits are extremely well known. Radar is also used to observe NEOs, giving us measurements of their precise distances and velocities. We use our orbit calculations to assess the chances that any one of these NEOs might impact our planet."

This article was updated to include additional comments from Paul Chodas.

Aorounga impact crater
The Aorounga impact crater in Chad. ESA/NASA