How a Tiny Asteroid Strike May Save Earthlings From City-Killing Space Rocks

Movies that imagine an asteroid or comet catastrophically colliding with Earth always feature a key scene: a solitary astronomer spots the errant space chunk hurtling toward us, prompting panic and a growing feeling of existential dread as the researcher tells the wider world.

On March 11, life began to imitate art. That evening, at the Konkoly Observatory’s Piszkéstető Mountain Station near Budapest, Krisztián Sárneczky was looking to the stars. Unsatisfied with discovering 63 near-Earth asteroids throughout his career, he was on a quest to find his 64th — and he succeeded.

At first, the object he spotted appeared normal. “It wasn’t unusually fast,” Mr. Sárneczky said. “It wasn’t unusually bright.” Half an hour later, he noticed “its movement was faster. That’s when I realized it was fast approaching us.”

That may sound like the beginning of a melodramatic disaster movie, but the asteroid was just over six feet long — an unthreatening pipsqueak. And Mr. Sárneczky felt elated.