A tiny asteroid no larger than 36 feet across darted past Earth on Wednesday evening, passing between our planet and the moon, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have announced. Dubbed asteroid 2019 QD, the teeny space rock performed an extremely close flyby of Earth in the late hours of August 21, coming within less than 200,000 miles of the planet’s surface.
According to JPL data released yesterday, the asteroid was first spotted on the same day of its close encounter with planet Earth. Based on its orbital path around the sun and its proximity to our planet, asteroid 2019 QD was immediately classified 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 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 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, asteroid 2019 QD is certainly not the heftiest space rock to wander this close to our planet. The asteroid is estimated to be somewhere between 15.4 feet and 36 feet in diameter, per NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). At the upper end of that size estimate, asteroid 2019 QD measures a little over half the size of the famous Chelyabinsk meteor, which exploded in the sky over Russia in 2013, wreaking havoc in the city of Chelyabinsk.
While the 65.5-foot-wide Chelyabinsk space rock got close enough to penetrate Earth’s atmosphere, ultimately becoming a meteor, yesterday’s celestial visitor merely skimmed the planet’s surface. Asteroid QD approached Earth at 9:28 p.m. ET on Wednesday, creeping in closer than the moon at a distance of about 186,000 miles from our home planet.
By comparison, the moon sits at an average distance of 238,900 miles from Earth. This means that, during yesterday’s close encounter, asteroid 2019 QD passed within 0.78 the lunar distance.
Interestingly enough, this was the first time that the tiny space rock has crossed paths with Earth in its journey around the sun. JPL data shows that the wayfaring asteroid clocked in a brief trip through the outer solar system two years ago, passing by Jupiter in November of 2017. Yesterday’s flyby of Earth was the rock’s first visit of the inner solar system.
Over the next century, asteroid 2019 QD will perform two more flybys of Earth. The space rock will return for a second visit in the year 2045, when it is expected to buzz Earth from a staggering 26.4 million miles away. After that, the asteroid will disappear for nearly eight decades, and will only resurface in late 2123.