Scientists determine origins of meteorite that traveled 23 million miles to hit Earth

Once upon a time a small asteroid broke off of its parent space rock — and smashed into Earth 23 million years later.

The asteroid, labeled 2018 LA, shot across the sky, fireball style, before landing in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana on June 2, 2018. Traveling at 38,000 miles per hour, it shattered into 23 meteorites, several miles above Earth’s surface, NASA said at the time.

They named the first piece they found, a shard of 0.6 ounces.

“The meteorite is named ‘Motopi Pan’ after a local watering hole,” Mohutsiwa Gabadirwe, the senior curator of the Botswana Geoscience Institute, said in a statement from the SETI Institute, whose researchers seek extraterrestrial life. “This meteorite is a national treasure of Botswana.”

Scientists have been seeking to learn the meteorites’ origins, and now they have located its source. They believe it broke off of Vesta, the second-largest asteroid in our solar system, according to a study published in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science.

Before it even hit, the speeding space rock — at about 6 feet across, the size of a boulder — had been sighted by the Catalina Sky Survey at the University of Arizona “as a faint point of light moving among the stars,” the researchers’ statement said. Catalina scans the skies for just such “Earth-crossing asteroids” under the auspices of NASA’s Planetary Defense program.

“Small meter-sized asteroids are no danger to us, but they hone our skills in detecting approaching asteroids,” Catalina Sky Survey program director Eric Christensen said.

It marked just the second time an incoming asteroid has been spotted in space while still heading toward Earth, SETI Institute meteor astronomer Peter Jenniskens said. The information retrieved from it will help scientists fill in some blanks about the solar system’s history and learn ever more about Vesta, which orbits in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The asteroid was the target of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which orbited and studied the asteroid on an 11-year mission that ended in late 2018, according to CBS News.

“Billions of years ago, two giant impacts on Vesta created a family of larger, more dangerous asteroids,” Jenniskens said. “The newly recovered meteorites gave us a clue on when those impacts might have happened.”