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Astronomers catch a shooting star

Falling asteroid was tracked prior to it blowing up

Students found this black rock chunk from an asteroid in a Sudan desert, and it is probably billions of years old. Students found this black rock chunk from an asteroid in a Sudan desert, and it is probably billions of years old. (NASA)
By Seth Borenstein
Associated Press / March 26, 2009
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WASHINGTON - For the first time scientists matched a meteorite found on Earth with a specific asteroid that became a fireball plunging through the sky. It gives them a glimpse into the past when planets formed and an idea of how to avoid a future asteroid Armageddon.

In October, astronomers tracked a small non-threatening asteroid heading toward Earth before it became a shooting star, something they had not done before. It blew up in the sky and scientists thought there would be no space rocks left to examine.

But a painstaking search by dozens of students through a remote Sudan desert came up with 8.7 pounds of black jagged rocks, leftovers from the asteroid 2008 TC3. And those dark rocks were full of surprises and minuscule diamonds, according to a study published today in the journal Nature.

"This was a meteorite that was not in our collection, a completely new material," said study lead author Peter Jenniskens of NASA's Ames Research Center in California. For years, astronomers have been lobbying to send a robot probe to an asteroid, grab a chunk of it and return it to Earth to analyze. Instead, an asteroid piece dropped in their laps and researchers were able to track where it came from and landed.

The asteroid, mostly burned 23 miles above the ground, is probably a leftover from when rock chunks tried and failed to become a planet about 4.5 billion years ago, scientists said.

"This is a look back in time," said Lucy McFadden, a University of Maryland astronomer.

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