Later today, planet Earth is in for an extremely close encounter with a tiny asteroid, one thought to be no bigger than 36 feet across. Known as asteroid 2019 TX, our celestial visitor will pop by later this afternoon, performing a very close flyby of Earth that will bring it nearly as close as the moon.
According to a report released yesterday by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), asteroid 2019 TX was discovered just last week. First picked up by NASA asteroid trackers on September 24, the small space 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 roughly 30 million miles away from Earth’s orbit and as close to the planet’s surface as a few times the distance to the moon — or even closer, as is the case for asteroid 2019 TX.
Aside from bearing the NEO label, today’s celestial visitor is also an Apollo asteroid. This particular designation has to do with its orbit around the sun and indicates that the asteroid has the potential of being classified as “Earth-crossing.” Named after asteroid 1862 Apollo, space rocks of this class zip through the solar system on an orbital path that occasionally allows them to intersect Earth’s orbit.
As far as NEOs go, asteroid 2019 TX is among the smallest rocks to swing through our corner of space in recent weeks. Data from NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) places the rock within a size range of between 16 and 36 feet in diameter. At the upper end of that size estimate, the asteroid 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 causing a substantial amount of damage — the meteor destroyed more than 7,200 buildings and injured nearly 1,500 people — the upcoming close brush with asteroid 2019 TX won’t pose any threat to Earth and its inhabitants. NASA assures that the asteroid has no risk of hitting Earth and will harmlessly cruise by our planet at a safe distance of under 300,000 miles.
“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 TX, JPL scientists used a total of 30 observations spanning nine days to plot its course through the inner solar system. According to their calculations, the tiny space rock will only get as close as 297,600 miles from Earth’s surface when it swings by later today.
By comparison, the moon sits at an average distance of 238,900 miles from Earth. This means that during today’s close encounter, the asteroid will cruise by Earth at 1.25 times the distance to the moon.
Asteroid 2019 TX is expected to approach Earth at 7:37 p.m. EDT. The rock will be traveling at a speed of more than 16,200 mph, or over 21 times the speed of sound.
Ahead of its close flyby of Earth, the tiny space rock swung by the moon. At 4:27 p.m. EDT, the asteroid buzzed the moon from 520,800 miles away.
Interestingly enough, today’s close brush with Earth is the closest that asteroid 2019 TX has ever gotten to our planet — and the closest it ever hopes to get for the foreseeable future. Over the past five decades, the asteroid has visited Earth three other times, only getting as close as 29 million miles in 1971.
The rock will return for another trip through our corner of space in 2020, and again in 2030 and 2031. However, all of its future flybys of Earth will carry it increasingly farther away from the planet’s surface.
Today’s close asteroid encounter comes just two days after a larger 98-foot Apollo asteroid skimmed Earth closer than the moon at more than 19,300 mph.