‘Potentially hazardous’ asteroid to fly by Earth on March 21, but no threat of collision, NASA says

Watching The Skies

This photo shows the view from inside the dome of NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility during a night of observing. The 3.2-meter (10.5-foot) telescope atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea will be used to measure the infrared spectrum of asteroid 2001 FO32. (UH/IfA)

LOS ANGELES (KTLA) — An asteroid predicted to be the largest to sweep by Earth this year will make its closest approach to the planet on the first full day of spring, according to NASA.

But not to worry, because there is “no threat” that it will crash into Earth, the space agency assures.

Dubbed 2001 FO32, the asteroid will come within 1.25 million miles of our planet on March 21, NASA said in a statement.

While that’s approximately 5.25 times the distance between the Earth and the moon, it’s still considered close in astronomical terms. Because of that, the space rock has been designated a “potentially hazardous asteroid” by NASA.

It’s expected to be the largest asteroid to zoom by Earth in 2021, with a length comparable to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, EarthSky reports.

Astronomers have been tracking 2001 FO32 since it was discovered 20 years ago, according to Paul Chodas, the director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies, which is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“We know the orbital path of 2001 FO32,” Chodas said in the release. “There is no chance the asteroid will get any closer to Earth than 1.25 million miles.”

In fact, according to NASA, there’s zero threat of an asteroid colliding with the planet in any of the coming centuries.

The near-Earth asteroid will fly by at speeds of about 77,000 mph, faster than most that encounter the planet. That’s due to its “highly inclined and elongated (or eccentric) orbit around the Sun,” the agency explained.

This diagram depicts the elongated and inclined orbit of 2001 FO32 as it travels around the Sun (white ellipse). (NASA/JPL-Caltech
This diagram depicts the elongated and inclined orbit of 2001 FO32 as it travels around the Sun (white ellipse). (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The rocky body will pick up speed “like a skateboarder rolling down a halfpipe” as it navigates further into the inner system, slowing down only after being hurled back out into deep space, according to the release. The asteroid will then swing back into the solar system and toward the sun.

All told, it will take 2001 FO32 about 810 days, or about 27 months, to complete the orbit.

However, the asteroid won’t come close to Earth again for another 31 years — until 2052 — when it will pass by at a distance of about 1.75 million miles.

So next weekend’s approach will provide a rare opportunity for astronomers to better understand it, according to NASA. Some things they’ll look at include its size, brightness and composition.

“Currently little is known about this object, so the very close encounter provides an outstanding opportunity to learn a great deal about this asteroid,” Lance Benner, principal scientist at JPL, said in the release.

He noted, for instance, that, “Observations dating back 20 years revealed that about 15% of near-Earth asteroids comparable in size to 2001 FO32 have a small moon.”

The asteroid will appear brightest in southern skies when it makes its approach, meaning those in the southern hemisphere and lower parts of the northern hemisphere will have the best views, according to Chodas.

But it won’t be visible to the naked eye.

To see the asteroid, Chodas recommends using a moderate size telescope with apertures of at least 8 inches in the nights prior to March 21. But, he added, those who try to view it will still likely need start charts in order to find it.

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