Asteroid FO32: How to see 2021’s biggest asteroid passing Earth – Astronomer’s tips

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The NASA-tracked asteroid will make its closest pass today, coming within 1.25 million miles of our homeworld. Although considered “close” in astronomical terms, astronomers have ruled out all possibility of impact, making today’s flyby an event of purely scientific interest. Officially labelled 231937 (2001 FO32), the asteroid is predicted to be the biggest space rock to visit our cosmic neighbourhood this year.

Observations by NASA’s NEOWISE telescope suggest FO32 measures somewhere in the range of 1,300 to 2,230ft (440 to 680m) across.

The asteroid’s colossal size, paired with its “close approach” – any flyby within 0.05au of Earth – is enough to earn the space rock a “potentially hazardous’ tag.

But astronomers have stressed there is nothing to fear – today or even hundreds of years from now.

Paul Chodas, director of NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), 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 1.25 million miles.”

How to see Asteroid FO32 tonight?

FO32 will make its closest pass of Earth after 4pm GMT today.

Data collected by NASA’s CNEOS suggest the rock will come within 0.01348au of Earth.

A single au or astronomical unit is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun – about 93 million miles (149.6 million km).

In other words, FO32 will zip by from about 1.25 million miles or more than five times as far as the Moon is from Earth.

Even at this distance, astrophysicist Gianluca Masi is positive an amateur-sized telescope will be enough to track the asteroid in the southern skies.

The space rock will be flying by at speeds of about 77,000 mph (124,000 kph).

Viewed through a telescope, the asteroid might appear like a plane or satellite moving across the starlit sky.

You will probably want to use an online star chart like Stellarium or TheSkyLive to help you pinpoint its exact location.

But this bit of advice comes with a big catch – you will need to be in the right place at the right time.

Unfortunately, the asteroid will be best visible from southerly latitudes, eluding the gaze of astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere.

Dr Masi told “An amateur telescope – let’s say an eight-inch one – would easily show this object, which is placed in the southern part of the sky, making it impossible for us in Europe to see it at the fly-by time.

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“In other words, you would need to be in the right place of the planet, where at the fly-by time you are in the middle of the night and have the object well placed in the sky.

“Being in Australia, for example, would make this feasible.”

But there is some good news, as Dr Masi will broadcast the asteroid’s flyby via the Virtual Telescope Project.

You will have to get up very early as the broadcast will kick off in the wee morning hours on Monday.

Dr Masi will track the object using a remote telescope in Ceccano, Italy, where the Virtual Telescope’s facilities are based.

The broadcast will begin at 4am GMT on Monday, March 22, when it should be visible in Italy’s skies.

You can tune in to the live stream in the embedded YouTube video above.

Asteroid FO32 was discovered 20 years ago by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) in Socorro, New Mexico.

Lance Benner, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL, said): “Currently little is known about this object, so the very close encounter provides an outstanding opportunity to learn a great deal about this asteroid.”

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