A rather sizable asteroid is currently en route toward our planet and will make a safe flyby of Earth later today, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have announced. Dubbed asteroid 2019 OJ3, the space rock is estimated to be so large that it could tower over the Statue of Liberty in New York, and will reach Earth's vicinity in the afternoon.
Data released today by the JPL shows that the asteroid was first spotted earlier this week, on July 29. This places the time of its discovery just four days before its close encounter with planet Earth.
Since it first came up on NASA's radar, so to speak, asteroid 2019 OJ3 has been closely monitored over the course of 68 observations. After studying the rock's orbital path and proximity to our planet, the JPL team classified 2019 OJ3 as a near-Earth object (NEO), specifically an Apollo-type asteroid.
As NASA explains, NEOs are celestial objects such as comets or asteroids that orbit somewhere between approximately 91 million and 121 million miles from the sun. This means that, in their journey around our star, 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.
At the same time, the Apollo designation refers to the fact that this particular NEO has the potential of being "Earth crossing." Named after asteroid 1862 Apollo, space rocks of this class zip around the solar system on an orbital path that occasionally allows them to cross Earth's orbit, NASA points out.
As far as NEOs go, today's celestial visitor is quite a hefty chunk of space rock. According to NASA's Center For Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), asteroid 2019 OJ3 is believed to be at least 151 feet wide and measure up to 328 feet in diameter. By comparison, the Statue of Liberty in New York is about 305 feet tall. This means that, at the upper end of NASA's size estimate, the asteroid would be larger than the iconic American landmark.
The relatively imposing space rock is currently speeding through the cosmos and will swoop by for a close approach to our planet this afternoon. Hurtling through the void of space at more than 36,200 mph, the rock is expected to dart past Earth at 3:24 p.m. ET.
While a close brush with an asteroid of this size could potentially cause some serious concern should the space rock wander a little too close for comfort, today's NEO encounter poses no threat to Earth and its inhabitants. The JPL assures that the flyby will be a perfectly safe one. The asteroid will harmlessly pass by our planet, only coming within 2.7 million miles of Earth's surface. To put that into perspective, that's more than 11 times the distance between Earth and the moon.
Interestingly enough, this will be the closest that asteroid 2019 OJ3 has ever gotten to our planet. JPL data shows that the space rock has performed three previous flybys of Earth in the last 41 years, only getting as close as 7 million miles of Earth.
After today's close approach, the asteroid will exit the inner solar system and continue its journey around the sun. Its orbital path will bring it through our neck of the cosmic woods in 2021, and then again in 2062.