Earlier today, planet Earth was buzzed by a tiny asteroid that ventured incredibly close to the planet’s surface, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have announced. Cruising through space at speeds of a little over 19,300 mph, the minuscule space rock passed closer than the moon, creeping in within just 65,100 miles of Earth.
To put that into perspective, the moon sits at an average distance of 238,900 miles from Earth. This means that during today’s extremely close flyby of Earth, the tiny rock flew at just 0.28 times the distance to the moon.
The wayfaring space rock approached Earth in the early hours of the afternoon, reaching its closest point to Earth at 1:28 p.m. ET. Several hours before its extremely close encounter with Earth, the asteroid swung by the moon, passing within 167,400 miles from its cratered surface.
Today’s near-miss was one of the closest asteroid encounters of the entire year. While Earth has seen quite an impressive number of close asteroid approaches over the past few months, very few rocks have wandered this close to the planet’s surface. Among the recent asteroids flybys that have sent fast-zipping space rocks flying closer than the moon in the last couple of months, the most noteworthy is a 33-foot asteroid that scraped past Earth at 0.48 times the lunar distance in early September. More recently, a larger 91-foot asteroid skimmed Earth from halfway the distance to the moon on October 31.
According to the JPL, today’s celestial visitor is known as asteroid 2019 VA. The rock nearly slipped past NASA’s radar, as it was spotted merely one day before its close brush with Earth. Although the asteroid was only recently discovered, NASA had just enough time to calculate its orbit and determine that the rock posed no threat to Earth, despite passing so close to the planet’s surface.
The asteroid 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 anywhere between 91 million and 121 million miles from the sun. This means that, as they circle the giant 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, as was the case for asteroid 2019 VA.
While the NEO label points to a proximity to Earth, the rock’s Apollo designation refers to the characteristics of its orbit. Named after asteroid 1862 Apollo, a nearly mile-wide rock that orbits the sun once every 650 days, Apollo asteroids are known for their potential of being “Earth-crossing.” Asteroids of this class circle the sun on an orbital path that allows them not only to approach Earth, but also to intersect — or cross — the planet’s orbit.
As far as NEOs go, asteroid 2019 VA is relatively small-scale. The rock is estimated to be at least 18 feet wide and can measure up to 42.6 feet in diameter, per NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS).
The asteroid orbits the sun once every 1,090 days or nearly three years. The rock previously visited Earth in late 2013, when it only came within 1.1 million miles of the planet’s surface. The asteroid is not expected to return for the foreseeable future.