The comet fragment exploded in dark skies over Spain and Portugal

On Saturday, revelers from across Spain and Portugal looked forward to a memorable night on a balmy spring evening. No one expected visitors from outer space to explode overhead.

At 11:46pm in Portugal, a fireball streaked across the sky, leaving a smoking trail of illuminated graffiti in its wake. Views shared on social media Shows jaws dropping The dark night briefly turns into day, burning in the shadows Snow white, otherworldly green and arctic blue.

Rocky asteroids self-destruct in Earth’s atmosphere with some frequency, causing high streaks in the sky. But over the weekend, the projectile hurtled toward Earth at a remarkable speed — about 100,000 miles per hour, twice what is expected for a typical asteroid. Experts say it had a strange trajectory that didn’t match the type typically taken by nearby space rocks.

That’s because the interloper isn’t an asteroid. It is a Fragment of a comet — an icy object that likely formed at the dawn of the solar system — lost its battle with our planet’s atmosphere 37 miles above the Atlantic Ocean. The European Space Agency has said that there is no possibility that any object could have landed on Earth.

“It’s an unexpected interplanetary fireworks show,” he said Swamp meA planetary astronomer at Queen’s University Belfast.

Comets rarely form shooting stars. “We have significant meteor showers throughout the year, which are the result of the Earth crossing the debris clouds of certain comets,” Dr Swamp said. For example, the Perseids, which occur every August, are the result of our world cleaning up the debris left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle.

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These meteor showers and the weekend’s lone scatter light up the sky alike. Air in front of objects is compressed and heated, which cooks, corrodes, cracks and destroys debris. That destruction process releases light—and, if the projectile is large enough, a powerful shock wave as it imparts its immense kinetic energy into the sky.

“The fragment was a bit bigger than a good portion of the meteors we see during meteor showers, so it created a big light show,” Dr Swamp said over the weekend.

Along with its luminous efficiency, the breakup of the comet fragment has been a dry run for experts hoping to protect the planet. Big killer asteroids.

One principle of planetary defense is to find space rocks before they find us; That way, the Guardians of the Planet can try to do something about them. But the piece on Portugal and Spain was not spied before its destruction.

“It would have been great to detect the object before it collided with Earth,” he said Juan Luis CanoMember of the Planetary Protection Office at the European Space Agency.

Anxiety is a thing A little big Saturday’s missile would again escape detection and explode with fatal effect on an unknown, unwarned city. For example, the tiny, 55-foot meteorite that exploded above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013 was not identified before its arrival—and its aerial explosion caused widespread damage equivalent to nearly 500,000 tons of TNT. At least 1,200 people.

But with advanced technology on the ground and in space, even small, innocuous objects around the solar system (weekend icy observers estimated that experts were just a few feet across) could be found, providing a practical means of planetary protection. Researchers are searching the skies for common but elusive football-field-sized rocks that could destroy a city.

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Fortunately, the next generation of observatories is coming online in the next few years – including one by an American astronomer, Vera C. Named after the Rubin Observatory, it will detect millions of faint and previously undiscovered asteroids.

For now, the scenes in Spain and Portugal remind us that Earth is a participant in the Solar System’s never-ending game of planetary billiards, and finding as many killer space rocks as possible is a mission of utmost importance.

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