An asteroid similar in size to the Golden Gate Bridge will swiftly pass Earth later this month, the largest and fastest asteroid to pass near our planet this year.
But don’t worry, it won’t get too close.
The asteroid, officially known to NASA as 231937 (2001 FO32), is roughly 1,300 to 2,230 feet wide, according to observations made by the NEOWISE team, putting it on the smaller end of the scale. It has an orbit period of 810 days.
The asteroid is smaller than the last notable to zoom in on Earth, but it will be three times closer, NASA said in a statement Thursday.
2001 FO32 is scheduled to reach 1.25 million miles from Earth at 11:02 am ET on March 21, just one day after the spring equinox. That’s close enough for NASA to classify it as “potentially dangerous“in its database for near-Earth asteroids, a designation given when they are about 4.65 million miles from Earth and are more than 500 feet in diameter.
It will go by at nearly 77,000 miles per hour, or 21 miles per second, raising the interest of scientists as one of the fastest space rocks known to pass the Earth. The asteroid is “unusually fast” due to its highly inclined and elongated orbit around the sun, bringing it closer to the sun than Mercury and twice as far from the sun as Mars.
“This is the closest predicted approach in 2021 for any moderately large asteroid, where ‘moderately large’ means at least several hundred meters in size,” Paul Chodas, director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies, told CBS News. .
However, it does not present any risk of impact, and scientists know its path very precisely, having studied it for about two decades.
“As 2001 FO32 makes its journey into the solar system, the asteroid picks up speed like a skater rolling down a half tube, then slows down after being thrown into deep space and spinning toward the Sun,” NASA said. .
The upcoming encounter provides astronomers with a unique opportunity to gain a better understanding of the asteroid, including its size, reflectance, and composition. Some of the studies will use NASA’s Infrared Telescope (IRTF) facility on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea.
“We’re trying to do geology with a telescope,” said Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “We are going to use the IRTF to get the infrared spectrum to see its chemical composition. Once we know that, we can make comparisons with meteorites on Earth to find out what minerals 2001 FO32 contains.”
Additionally, researchers can use radar observations from NASA’s Deep Space Network, which has ground stations in California, Spain, and Australia, to study the asteroid’s orbit, dimensions, rotational speed, surface features. and potential satellites.
“Observations dating back 20 years revealed that about 15% of near-Earth asteroids comparable in size to FO32 from 2001 have a small moon,” said Lance Benner, lead scientist at JPL. “Currently little is known about this object, so the very close encounter provides a rare opportunity to learn a lot about this asteroid.”
At its brightest, the space rock will remain “too faint” to be seen with the naked eye, Chodas said. But space enthusiasts can spot it with a telescope.
“One fascinating aspect of asteroids is that observers using backyard telescopes can detect them as seemingly slow-moving ‘stars’,” EarthSky said. “Generally, it takes users of garden telescopes at least 5 to 10 minutes to detect the movement of a space rock in front of its star field. But asteroid 2001 FO32 will pass by the Earth at such a rapid rate that, when closer, observers using 8-inch or larger telescopes could detect its motion, its drift in front of the stars, in real time. “
Observers in lower northern latitudes and in the southern hemisphere will have the best chance of detecting it at its brightest, Chodas said. The star maps will help you locate it.
Telescopes in New Mexico that are part of the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research program detected the asteroid in March 2001. MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory program, funded by the United States Air Force and NASA, has been monitoring it ever since. .
After its visit on March 21, FO32 will continue its “lonely journey,” and will not return to Earth until 2052. In that year, it will reach 1.75 million miles from Earth, or about seven lunar distances.
The biggest known threat today is an asteroid named (410777) 2009 FD, which has a less than 0.2% chance of hitting Earth in 2185, according to NASA’s PDCO.