A rather large asteroid swung past Earth in the late hours of Saturday night, asteroid trackers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have announced. Known as asteroid 2019 NQ5, the space rock came in for a so-called "close Earth approach" at 10:06 p.m. ET and managed to get within 3 million miles from the planet's surface.
Last night's flyby comes just five days after the celestial object was first spotted by astronomers. According to the JPL, the asteroid was picked up by NASA's radar, so to speak, at the beginning of the week – on July 8, to be exact.
Judging by its trajectory and proximity to our planet, the space rock was classified as a near-Earth object, or NEO. 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.
The interesting thing about asteroid 2019 NQ5 is that its orbital path around the sun indicates that the object has the potential of being "Earth crossing." This places the space rock in a special category of so-called Aten-type asteroids – objects that can not only approach our planet but also occasionally cross Earth's orbit, as detailed by NASA.
The wayfaring asteroid is believed to be quite sizable. Data from NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) shows that this particular NEO is at least 82 feet wide and can measure up to 187 feet in diameter. At the upper end of that size scale, the object is nearly three times the size of the famous 65.5-foot Chelyabinsk meteor that penetrated Earth's atmosphere in 2013, exploding in the sky over Russia.
While an asteroid of these proportions would certainly pose some serious concern should it wander too close for comfort – the much smaller Chelyabinsk meteor caused a substantial amount of damage, destroying more than 7,200 buildings and injuring nearly 1,500 people – the object harmlessly passed by Earth late last night. Hurtling through the void of space at a cruising speed of a little over 22,100 mph, asteroid 2019 NQ5 buzzed our planet from only about 2.73 million miles away. To put that into perspective, that's 11.44 times the distance to the moon.
Given that NEOs can sometimes creep in closer than the moon, last night's flyby was certainly not among the closest encounters that Earth has ever had with a passing asteroid. Nevertheless, yesterday's visit was still one for the records, as it brought asteroid 2019 NQ5 a lot closer to Earth than it's been in decades.
The last time that the space rock managed to approach closer than 2.73 million miles of Earth was 45 years ago, on March 5, 1974. At the time, the asteroid came within 2.57 million miles of the planet's surface, shows JPL data.
Asteroid 2019 NQ5 is due for a return trip through our corner of the solar system next summer. However, its upcoming flyby – one estimated to occur on June 27, 2020 – will carry it considerably farther away from our planet, only bringing it within 39.5 million miles of Earth's surface.