On October 7, 2008, an asteroid the size of a car blazed through the atmosphere and crashed into an African desert.
For the first time in history, scientists were able to watch the asteroid as it flew through space, entered Earth’s atmosphere and crashed into the desert. Named 2008 TC3, it’s the first asteroid to be observed both in space and on Earth.
Asteroids the size of 2008 TC3 aren’t uncommon, and fragments from one usually strike Earth every year. Because they are so small, Earth-bound asteroids usually remain unseen until they enter our atmosphere. Larger asteroids are easier to see, but are more rare.
In the case of 2008 TC3, astronomers first saw it on October 6 through a telescope on a mountain in Arizona. As they watched it move across the sky, they studied its mineral composition by observing how it reflected sunlight, and used tracking equipment to predict when it would impact Earth.
Shortly after the collision, a team of African scientists and students headed out into the desert to look for meteorites, which are pieces of the asteroid that survived the fiery trip through the atmosphere and landed on Earth. They brought back about 47 meteorites from 2008 TC3.
When they studied the fragments, they discovered new information about the characteristics of different kinds of meteorites. They also gained some valuable information: if a larger and more dangerous asteroid ever comes crashing toward Earth scientists might see it coming.