Planet Earth is in for a close -- but perfectly safe -- asteroid encounter tomorrow morning, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) announced earlier today. Countless asteroids fly past Earth every month, with most of them only getting within a few million miles of the planet's surface. Tomorrow's celestial visitor, however, will approach a lot closer and harmlessly cruise by Earth at 4.5 times the distance to the moon.
The space rock in question is known as asteroid 2019 RA and was only discovered five days ago, on September 1. According to the JPL, the object was attentively monitored for a period of four days, during which scientists performed 134 observations of its speed and trajectory. After gauging the rock's orbital path around the sun, the JPL team was able to plot the asteroid's course through the inner solar system, announcing that 2019 RA would be performing a close flyby of Earth on September 7.
Based on its orbit and proximity to our planet, the rock was 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 30 million miles from 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 rock'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 RA is not a particularly hefty one. The object is believed to measure at least 72 feet in diameter and can be up to 160.7 feet wide, per NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). The size estimate places 2019 RA somewhat on the smaller side, particularly in comparison to the massive and potentially dangerous 1,214-foot Apollo asteroid that shot past Earth earlier today, as covered by The Inquisitr. Nevertheless, the rock is still large enough to be monitored by the JPL and is bigger than some of the asteroids that have wandered through our corner of space in recent weeks.
Asteroid 2019 RA will swing by for its close approach to Earth in the early hours of Saturday morning. Hurtling through space at nearly 12,800 mph, the asteroid will dart past Earth at 2:55 a.m. ET. At its closest point to Earth, the rock will pass within 1.07 million miles of the planet's surface, or exactly 4.52 times the distance between Earth and the moon.
Interestingly enough, this is the closest that asteroid 2019 RA has ever gotten to Earth – and the closest it will likely get for the foreseeable future. After studying its orbit, JPL scientists were able to compile a list of all of the asteroid's past and future flybys of Earth. The asteroid's first flyby was 81 years ago in 1938, and the rock will continue its orbit for another 178 years to the year 2197.
In the past, the asteroid has visited Earth a total of 13 times, only managing to get as close as 9.69 million miles in 1980. The last time that asteroid 2019 RA swung by Earth was in 2016, when it buzzed the planet from a staggering 44.97 million miles.
The rock will return for another visit in 2023, when it will fly past us at a distance of 44.64 million miles. Over the next 178 years, the asteroid will perform 27 more flybys of Earth, the closest of which will occur in 2073 and will only bring the rock within 19.4 million miles of the planet's surface.