Earlier today, Earth was visited by a rather small but no less significant asteroid, one embarked on a momentous loop around the sun. Believed to be no larger than the Colossus of Rhodes in Greece, the wayfaring space rock performed a close flyby of Earth in the early hours of the morning, coming nearer to our planet than it has been in over three decades.
Known as asteroid 2019 NR3, the space rock was first discovered at the end of June and has been maintained under close monitoring by NASA asteroid trackers as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). After keeping a sharp eye on its trajectory to glean out the object's orbital path around the sun, JPL scientists classified the space rock as a near-Earth object (NEO), specifically an Apollo-type asteroid.
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.
At the same time, the asteroid's Apollo classification suggests that the object can not only approach our planet in its journey around the sun, but it can also occasionally cross Earth's orbit, NASA points out.
According to NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), asteroid 2019 NR3 is thought to measure at least 49 feet in diameter and be up to 108-feet-wide. While an asteroid of this size is relatively puny compared to many other NEOs that venture through our corner of the solar system, the space rock is, nevertheless, large enough to be kept under observation by the JPL.
After studying its orbit, the NASA team was able to pinpoint the moment of the asteroid's close approach to our planet. In addition, the JPL compiled a list of all of the NEO's past and future flybys of Earth, dating back to the year 1911 and stretching for another 40 years, until the year 2060.
JPL data revealed that asteroid 2019 NR3 swooped in for its close encounter with Earth at 7:33 a.m. ET today. Flying through space at a cruising speed of a little over 10,700 mph, or nearly 14 times the speed of sound, the asteroid buzzed Earth from a distance of exactly 3.99 million miles of the planet's surface. To put that into perspective, that's 16.74 times the distance to the moon.
The last time that asteroid 2019 NR3 came within less than 4 million miles of Earth was 36 years ago, on January 2, 1983. At the time, the space rock managed to creep within just 1.48 million miles of Earth's surface.
The traveling asteroid is due to another visit next year, and then again in 2021. After that, the space rock will disappear for 16 years, only to resurface in the year 2037. However, these future flybys of Earth will carry it exponentially further away from the planet's surface than it managed to come today.