The year’s first asteroid was spotted on New Year's Day and plunged into Earth’s atmosphere and burned up somewhere between Africa and South America over the Atlantic Ocean on Thursday.
The asteroid, given the number 2014 AA, was discovered hours before it hit Earth by astronomers using the Mt. Lemmon Survey telescope in Arizona. The first image showing the asteroid was taken on Wednesday around 1:20 a.m. EST, Slate.com reports.
"I'm kicking myself for not having spotted this," astronomer Bill Gray of the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center said, admitting his holiday plans interfered with his daily plans of scanning telescopic images. “On New Years Day, I'd made arrangements to go with my family to visit my sister, go for a walk, stop off for a doughnut, shovel snow, etc., etc." Gray says he spotted 2014 AA only a few hours before impact, Sky and Telescope reports.
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Astronomers estimate from the object’s brightness that it was anywhere between 6.5 to 10 feet long – the approximate size of a car. Since it charged into Earth at a high speed, it disintegrated before it made landfall.
“According to Chesley, the impact locations are widely distributed, most likely falling on an arc extending from Central America to East Africa, with a best-fit location just off the coast of West Africa on Jan. 2.10,” the Minor Planet Electronic Circular reports, referring to astronomer Steve Chesley of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
While an asteroid hitting Earth is not unusual, the fact that it was spotted before impact is. The last time an asteroid was discovered before reaching the planet’s atmosphere was in 2008. Named TC3, the asteroid was spotted 19 hours before it burned up somewhere over Sudan. Meteorite hunters were able to recover remnants from the impact in the desert.