The speedy asteroid is currently hurtling towards our home planet on a so-called “Earth Close Approach” trajectory. NASA’s scientists have dubbed the imposing rock Asteroid 2019 FT2, after it was first spotted on March 31. The US space agency now expects to see the asteroid swing by Earth just after 7pm BST (6pm UTC). This moment will mark the asteroid’s closest possible approach to Earth on its orbit of the Sun.
Later tonight, around 9.51m BST (8.51pm UTC), NASA also predicts FT2 will almost brush the Moon from a slightly farther distance.
But just how close to the Earth is the asteroid expected to arrive today?
At its most likely approach vector, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California estimates an approach from 0.00604 astronomical units (au).
One astronomical unit is the measurement of the distance from the Sun to the Earth, which is approximately 93 million miles (149.6 million km).
Asteroid FT2 will considerably trim this down tonight to just 561,453 miles (903,571km).
In other words, this is the equivalent of 2.35 times the distance from Earth to the Moon – a unit of measurement known as Lunar Distances (LD).
Then in the late evening, the asteroid will approach the Moon from a distance of 0.00428au or 397,850.86 miles (640,278.9km).
And if that is not terrifying enough, NASA estimates the space rock is falling through space at a rate of 27.08km per second or 60,576mph (97,488kmph).
At this speed and an estimated size of up to 105ft (32m) across, the asteroid is an incredibly formidable threat to be aware of.
Asteroids are the bits and pieces left over from the initial agglomeration of the inner planets
Thankfully NASA does not believe FT2 will approach the Earth close enough to raise the alarm at any point in the foreseeable future.
According to the space agency, FT2 will approach the Earth once more on April 5, 2024, which could be the last time we see the rock.
Before that happens, the asteroid will also swing by Venus on December 20, 2020.
So why is NASA keeping track of the asteroid’s flyby tonight?
Asteroid FT2 is a prime example of a so-called “Near-Earth Object” or NEO.
All NEOs are comets and asteroids on orbital trajectories cutting into the path the Earth takes around the Sun.
Occasionally, NEOs will intersect the Earth’s orbit from a very close distance and are picked up by asteroid-tracking radars on Earth.
NASA explained: “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.
“The giant outer planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune – formed from an agglomeration of billions of comets and the left over bits and pieces from this formation process are the comets we see today.
“Likewise, today’s asteroids are the bits and pieces left over from the initial agglomeration of the inner planets that include Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars.”
Being able to track an asteroid’s path with great certainty is also a crucial element of Earth’s defence in the event of a killer asteroid headed directly for us.
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