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Revelers in Spain and Portugal were surprised on a Saturday night by a visitor from outer space exploding above their heads at 11:46 p.m. A fireball streaked across the sky, leaving a trail of incandescent colors in its wake. It was later determined that the projectile was actually a fragment of a comet, not an asteroid, that had lost its battle with Earth’s atmosphere above the Atlantic Ocean. This unexpected event was described as an “interplanetary fireworks show” by planetary astronomer Meg Schwamb.

Comets are known to create shooting stars, with notable meteor showers occurring throughout the year as a result of Earth crossing debris clouds left behind by specific comets. The breakup of the fragment over the weekend was similar to a meteor shower, with air in front of the object heating up and releasing light as it cooked, eroded, and cracked open. The destructive process also produced a powerful shock wave if the projectile was large enough. In this case, the chunk was estimated to be larger than most meteors seen during meteor showers, resulting in a bigger light show.

The comet fragment’s breakup served as a demonstration of asteroid defense tactics, as one approach is to find space rocks before they find Earth in order to take preventive measures. The fragment over Portugal and Spain was not detected before its demise, raising concerns about the potential impact of a slightly larger object exploding over a populated area. Improved technology on the ground and in space, however, is expected to help in identifying and tracking potentially dangerous objects from around the solar system, providing practice for researchers searching for larger rocks that could pose a greater threat to cities.

With the upcoming launch of next-generation observatories, such as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, millions of faint and previously undiscovered asteroids are expected to be spotted in the sky. This will aid in the ongoing efforts to find as many killer space rocks as possible and prepare for potential asteroid impacts. The event in Spain and Portugal serves as a reminder that Earth is part of a larger solar system where planetary billiards is constantly at play, emphasizing the importance of planetary defense research in safeguarding the planet from potential threats.

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