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An asteroid hurtling through the solar system almost hit Earth – but scientists didn't know it existed.

The fridge-sized asteroid passed Antarctica on Earth's daytime side as it came from the direction of the sun, according to astronomers.

Scientists were left unaware of the object, which they have now named Asteroid 2021 UA1.

The rock was estimated to have a diameter of two meters, making it was too small to pose a threat.

A space object must measure at least 460 feet (140 m) in diameter, according to NASA.

If UA1 had struck Earth, most of its rocky body would have burned away in the atmosphere before it could hit the ground.

Back in 2013 an asteroid hit Russia blowing out thousands of windows in the city of Chelyabinsk – this was 20 times bigger than UA1.

NASA is now investigating defensive technologies for protecting Earth from possible collisions with larger space rocks, through deflection, with its NEO Surveyor Spacecraft to be launched in 2026.

There currently there is no way to keep an eye out for objects that are hidden by the sun.

However, near-Earth Objects, or NEOs, are asteroids and comets that come close to the Earth and a small fraction of them are potentially hazardous.

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NASA said: "The Near-Earth Object Surveyor Mission, or NEO Surveyor, is a new NASA mission that is designed to discover and characterize most of the potentially hazardous NEOs.

"NEO Surveyor, led by UA, is a planetary defense mission designed to respond to the objectives of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office by detecting, cataloguing, and characterizing NEOs larger than 140 meters.

"In doing so, the NEO Surveyor mission provides critical decision support to NASA and other decision-makers who must assess the risks of NEO impacts to Earth and must identify potential mitigation strategies."

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