An asteroid similar in size to the Golden Gate Bridge will pass by Earth later this month – the largest and fastest asteroid to pass near our planet this year.
The asteroid, officially known by NASA as 231937 (2001 FO32), is about 0.5 to 1 mile in diameter, making it larger than about 97% of asteroids, but smaller than large asteroids, according to the Space Reference. It has an orbit period of 810 days.
The asteroid is due to arrive 1.25 million miles from Earth at 11:02 a.m. ET on March 21, just one day after the vernal equinox. That’s close enough for NASA to classify it as “potentially dangerous“in its database of near-Earth asteroids.
“This is the closest projected approach in 2021 for any moderately large asteroid, where ‘moderately large’ means at least a few hundred meters,” said Paul Chodas, director of the Center for the Study of Objects Near Earth on Wednesday.
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However, it does not pose a risk of impact and scientists know its path very precisely.
It will approach at nearly 77,000 miles per hour, or 21 miles per second – reaching the pinnacle of scientists’ interest as one of the fastest space rocks known to fly around the Earth, according to EarthSky. Asteroids are defined as “potentially dangerous” when they are about 4.65 million miles from Earth and are more than 500 feet in diameter.
At its brightest, the space rock will still be “too weak” to be seen with the naked eye, Chodas said.
“A fascinating aspect of asteroids is that observers using backyard telescopes can see them as apparently slow-moving ‘stars,'” EarthSky said. “It usually takes at least 5 to 10 minutes for backyard users to detect the movement of a space rock in front of their star field. But asteroid 2001 FO32 will fly past Earth at such a rapid pace that when it is closest, observers using inch or larger telescopes may be able to detect its motion – its deviation from the stars – in real time. “
Observers in the lower northern latitudes and in the southern hemisphere will have the best chance of noticing it in its brightest state, Chodas said. Star charts will help you find it.
Telescopes in New Mexico, part of a program to study asteroids near Lincoln, discovered the asteroid on March 23, 2001. The MIT Lincoln Laboratory, funded by the US Air Force and NASA, has been monitoring it ever since.
Currently, the biggest known threat is an asteroid called (410777) 2009 FD, which has less than a 0.2% chance of hitting Earth in 2185, according to NASA’s PDCO.