Astronomers who have been tracking the asteroid for the past 20 years are thrilled about its upcoming flyby. Officially called 2001 FO32, the asteroid will make its closest pass of Earth on Sunday, March 21. But there is nothing to worry about because even at its closest, the space rock will come no closer than 1.25 million miles of our homeworld.
Dozens of asteroids of various shapes and sizes swing past our planet but most go unnoticed by the scientific community.
FO32 is different in this regard because its sheer size makes it a valuable object of study.
According to NASA’s estimates, the asteroid measures somewhere in the range of 1,300 to 2,230ft (440 to 680m).
To put the scale into perspective, at 2,230ft the asteroid is seven times as tall as Big Ben’s clocktower in London.
So even though the asteroid will be more than five times as far as the Moon, astronomers are hoping to get a good look at this relic from the earliest days of the solar system.
Stargazers in the Southern Hemisphere should be able to see FO32 through a moderately-sized telescope of at least eight inches.
NASA said: “The scientific interest in comets and asteroids is due largely to their status as the relatively unchanged remnant debris from the solar system formation process some 4.6 billion years ago.”
Many of the asteroids that swing by our planet are leftovers from the formation of the inner planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.
Asteroid FO32 was first spotted in March 2001 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program in Socorro, New Mexico.
Preliminary scans suggested the space rock measured about 3,000ft (914m) across, although subsequent observations scaled it down somewhat.
The asteroid is big enough to be considered “potentially hazardous” but that does not mean it is going to strike the planet.
Instead, the asteroid’s size and relatively close flyby make it an object worth keeping an eye on in the future.
Asteroids are said to swing by on “close approaches” whenever they come within 0.05 au of Earth – nearly five million miles.
Paul Chodas, director of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) in California, said: “We know the orbital path of 2001 FO32 around the Sun very accurately since it was discovered 20 years ago and has been tracked ever since.
“There is no chance the asteroid will get any closer to Earth than 1.25 million miles.”
During its flyby, FO32 will pass us at speeds of about 77,000mph (124,000kph) – faster than most asteroids visiting Earth.
NASA’s observations show the asteroid follows an elongated and steeply inclined orbit of the Sun.
The path brings the asteroid closer to the Sun than Mercury and twice as far from the Sun as Mars.
NASA compared the trajectory to a skateboarder on a halfpipe – FO32 picks up speed every time is flies towards the inner solar system and slows down on its way out.
FO32 completes a lap every 810 days or just more than two years.
The asteroid will make its next closest pass in 2052 when it will come within 1.75 million miles of Earth.