Tomorrow morning, planet Earth is in for a close brush with an asteroid that will swing by at just a few times the distance to the moon. Known as asteroid 2019 SP2, the wayfaring space rock was only recently discovered and is currently on course for a so-called “close Earth approach” that will bring it just under 1.35 million miles of the planet’s surface, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) announced today.
By comparison, the moon sits at an average distance of 238,900 miles from Earth. This means that, during its close flyby on Thursday, asteroid 2019 SP2 will pass within 5.6 times the lunar distance.
The interesting thing about asteroid 2019 SP2 is its size and orbit. The space rock is thought to be so large that it could potentially dwarf the Statue of Liberty in New York. Data from NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) places the asteroid within a size range of between 144 feet and 324.8 feet in diameter. At the upper end of NASA’s size estimate, the asteroid is bigger than the iconic New York landmark, which stands about 310 feet tall.
Equally compelling is the asteroid’s potential of being “Earth-crossing.” Based on its orbit around the sun, the rock was classified as an Apollo-type asteroid. As NASA explains, Apollo asteroids get their name from asteroid 1862 Apollo and are known to zip around the solar system on an orbital path that occasionally allows them to cross Earth’s orbit.
Another striking fact about tomorrow’s celestial visitor is that it was only recently discovered. The rock was spotted a mere three days ago, on September 22, and has been attentively monitored by the JPL ever since.
Although the thought of a close encounter with an asteroid can be understandably unnerving — particularly one this large due to buzz Earth at such a close distance — NASA assures that there’s no reason to panic. Tomorrow’s close flyby will be a perfectly safe one, as the asteroid will harmlessly pass by Earth on its journey around the sun.
“Scientists determine the orbit of an asteroid by comparing measurements of its position as it moves across the sky to the predictions of a computer model of its orbit around the sun,” explains NASA.
“The more observations that are used and the longer the period over which those observations are made, the more accurate the calculated orbit and the predictions that can be made from it.”
In the case of asteroid 2019 SP2, the JPL team used a total of 84 observations to gauge its trajectory through the inner solar system. The space rock is expected to swoop in for its close approach to Earth at 9:38 a.m. ET on September 26, hurtling past us at a cruising speed of nearly 21,000 mph — or more than 27 times the speed of sound.
Interestingly enough, tomorrow’s close flyby of Earth will be the closest that asteroid 2019 SP2 has ever gotten to our planet — and the closest it will ever hope to get. Although only recently discovered, the rock is not new to our corner of the solar system and frequently passes by Earth as it circles the sun once every 374 days. Over the last 77 years, the asteroid visited Earth a total of 12 times, coming as close as 2 million miles in 1944. The last time the rock paid Earth a visit was on September 20, 2018, when it flew past us at a staggering distance of 16.4 million miles. This makes tomorrow’s flyby the closest one ever for the intrepid space rock.
Over the next half-a-century, the asteroid will perform another 17 flybys of Earth, with the next one expected to occur exactly one year from now. However, its future trips through our corner of space will carry the rock increasingly farther away from Earth. The next time the asteroid will pass at a comparable distance from Earth will be on September 25, 2065, when the rock will buzz Earth from 1.63 million miles away.
Asteroid 2019 SP2 won’t be the only space rock traipsing through our celestial neighborhood on Thursday. The rock will be preceded by a 216-foot Apollo asteroid due to cruise by Earth in the pre-dawn hours of the morning, per another report from the JPL. Dubbed asteroid 2019 QY3, the object will safely pass by Earth at a distance of 3.31 million miles.
Later the same day, a smaller, 134-foot asteroid will skim Earth at a little over four times the lunar distance, as previously covered by The Inquisitr.