Planet Earth is in for a close, but perfectly safe, encounter with an asteroid later today. Dubbed asteroid 2019 NT1, the rock is currently cruising through space at 8,250 mph and will reach Earth’s vicinity in the late afternoon, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have announced.
While Earth is frequently visited by asteroids of various sizes, some of them repeatedly venturing through our corner of the solar system as they zip around the sun, today’s encounter with asteroid 2019 NT1 will be the first one ever. Until now, the two celestial bodies have not crossed paths, so to speak, in their orbits around the sun.
As its name suggests, the wayfaring asteroid was only discovered this year. First spotted in early July, the rock was classified as a near-Earth object (NEO), specifically an Amor-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 – or even closer.
Meanwhile, the asteroid’s Amor classification suggests that, unlike Apollo and Aten asteroids, the object follows an orbital path which allows it to approach Earth without actually crossing the planet’s orbit, NASA points out.
As far as NEOs go, 2019 NT1 is not among the heftier space rocks that occasionally traipse through our neck of the cosmic woods. In fact, the asteroid is rather on the small side, being only a dozen feet wider than the Chelyabinsk meteor that famously penetrated Earth’s atmosphere six years ago. Data from NASA’s Center For Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) places the object anywhere between 36 feet and 78 feet in diameter.
Little as it may be, the asteroid could still pose some serious concern should it wander too close for comfort. After all, the smaller, 65.5-foot Chelyabinsk meteor caused a substantial amount of damage when it exploded in the sky over Russia on February 15, 2013, destroying more than 7,200 buildings and injuring nearly 1,500 people.
Luckily, today’s asteroid encounter won’t put Earth and its inhabitants at any risk. The JPL assures that the space rock will harmlessly pass by our planet, buzzing Earth from a few million miles away.
Asteroid 2019 NT1 is expected to swing by for its so-called “close Earth approach” – the first one it has ever performed – at 6:10 p.m. ET. During today’s close encounter, the space rock will only come within 4.5 million miles of the planet’s surface, or nearly 19 times the distance to the moon. After that, it will exit the inner solar system and continue its journey around the sun.
The wandering NEO won’t be back for its second visit for another 28 years, in 2047. Its third flyby of Earth will occur after another decade, in 2057, after which the asteroid will disappear for four years, resurfacing in 2061, 2062, and 2066.