A rather imposing asteroid has darted past our planet in what astronomers are classifying as a "close Earth approach." Traveling through the void of space at cruising speeds of more than 18,900 mph – or a little over 24.6 times the speed of sound – the object safely passed by Earth on Saturday night, asteroid trackers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have announced.
Known as asteroid 2016 OF, the space rock has been classified as a near-Earth object (NEO). The object was first spotted on July 22, 2016, exactly 10 days after it made a close flyby of Earth. Since then, JPL scientists have been keeping a close watch over the asteroid, monitoring its trajectory in order to gauge out the dates of its upcoming close approaches.
To qualify for the NEO designation, a celestial object – be it a comet or an asteroid – needs to orbit somewhere between approximately 91 million and 121 million miles from the sun, explains NASA. This means that, in their journey around the sun, NEOs can venture as far as about 30 million miles of Earth's orbit and as close to the planet's surface as a few times the distance to the moon.
Some NEOs manage to creep in even closer, occasionally passing between Earth and its natural satellite. However, this was not the case for asteroid 2016 OF during its most recent flyby of Earth.
According to NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), the space rock is estimated to measure at least 210 feet in diameter and be up to 459.31 feet wide. At either end of that size estimate, the asteroid would have posed serious concern if it had veered off course and gotten a little too close for comfort.
As it is, the space rock harmlessly hurtled past Earth yesterday night, only coming within a few million miles of the planet's surface.
Data from both CNEOS and JPL show that asteroid 2016 OF swooped in for its close encounter with planet Earth at 11:06 p.m. ET on July 6. During its so-called "close Earth approach," the asteroid only managed to get as close as 3.04 million miles of our homeworld. To put that into perspective, that's 12.75 times the distance between Earth and moon.
The last time that asteroid 2016 OF paid Earth a visit was on the eve of its discovery three years ago. On July 12, 2016, the object passed by our planet at a distance of 2.13 million miles.
The wayfaring space rock will return for another visit in three years' time. However, its future flyby of Earth won't bring it anywhere nearly as close to our planet. On June 23, 2022, asteroid 2016 OF will buzz Earth from a staggering distance of 11.58 million miles. Its subsequent flybys will carry it increasingly farther from our planet.