A giant asteroid set to fly by Earth at an incredible 35,000 miles per hour on Monday is described by scientists as the size of a mountain, and will come closer to our home planet than any asteroid of that gargantuan size in recorded history. This fly-by will be the closest call for the Big Blue Marble until another giant asteroid zooms past 12 years from now.
But humans have nothing to worry about this time around. Though the asteroid will miss Earth by what in cosmic terms could be thought of as a hair’s breadth, the 1,800-foot space rock will still pass about 745,000 miles overhead.
That’s close enough for astronomers to gather plenty of critical data, and even for backyard sky watchers to get a good look through amateur-quality telescopes, or even binoculars.
But the distance, nonetheless, is three times further away than Earth’s moon.
“While it poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future, it’s a relatively close approach by a relatively large asteroid, so it provides us a unique opportunity to observe and learn more,” said NASA scientist Don Yeomans, who studied asteroids and other objects in Earth’s immediate cosmic neighborhood with the space agency’s Near Earth Object Program.
Yeomans actually retired from his post on January 9, but he’s still keeping an eye on the giant asteroid zooming toward the general vicinity if Earth.
“I may grab my favorite binoculars and give it a shot myself,” said the retired NASA sky-watcher. “Asteroids are something special. Not only did asteroids provide Earth with the building blocks of life and much of its water, but in the future, they will become valuable resources for mineral ores and other vital natural resources. They will also become the fueling stops for humanity as we continue to explore our solar system. There is something about asteroids that makes me want to look up.”
This particular asteroid, known to scientists by the not-so-colorful name 2004 BL86, will pass by Earth again — in another 200 years.
But space buffs will need to wait only another 12 years for the next close call with a giant asteroid. That’s when 1999 AN 10 will barrel past the planet.
Actually, for those among us who worry about things like asteroids crashing into the planet, there are about 550 known asteroids in the solar system that astronomers say could one day slam into Earth. But probably not anytime in the foreseeable future.
If and when an asteroid fails to fly by Earth, but actually flies into our planet, it wouldn’t be the first time. About 65 million years ago, scientists believe a giant asteroid crashed into Earth, leading to a global catastrophe that eventually wiped out the creatures who ruled the world at that time, the dinosaurs.