A newly discovered asteroid is due to scrape past Earth today and will creep in very close to the planet’s surface, NASA has announced. The rock is flying through space at a cruising speed of 28,600 mph and will skim Earth from just 660,300 miles away.
By comparison, the average distance between Earth and the moon is about 238,900 miles. As such, the asteroid is expected to pass at just under three times the Earth-moon distance when it swings by our planet later today.
This is the latest in a series of close asteroid approaches that have brought space rocks of various sizes in close proximity to our planet over the past couple of months. According to NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), several recently discovered asteroids have swung by Earth in recent weeks — and today’s celestial visitor is the latest of the bunch.
The wayfaring space rock was first picked up by NASA asteroid trackers on October 25. The rock was classified as a near-Earth object (NEO) — specifically, an Apollo-type asteroid — and was dubbed asteroid 2019 UL8. The object completes a full orbit around the sun in 673 days, or about 1.8 years, occasionally passing through our corner of the solar system. As an Apollo asteroid, the rock has the potential of being “Earth-crossing,” which means that its orbital path around the sun not only brings it close to Earth, but also allows it to cross the planet’s orbit.
Today’s celestial visitor is not particularly large. The rock is believed to measure up to 104 feet in diameter, per CNEOS. According to NASA’s size estimate, the asteroid is only 1.58 times larger than the famous Chelyabinsk meteor that exploded in the sky over Russia in 2013.
While that particular close encounter resulted in substantial damage — the meteor entered Earth’s atmosphere at over 39,600 mph and exploded 14 miles above the ground, releasing the energy equivalent of around 440,000 tons of TNT and generating a shock wave that blew out windows across 200 square miles — that won’t be the case for asteroid 2019 UL8. NASA assures that the asteroid poses no threat to us despite wandering so close to the planet’s surface, and will harmlessly pass by us at a safe distance, with no risk of hitting Earth.
The asteroid is expected to approach Earth in the afternoon. The rock will first pass by the moon, zipping some 911,400 miles away from its cratered surface at 3:27 p.m. ET. Twenty minutes later, the asteroid will dart past Earth at exactly 2.8 times the distance between our planet and the moon.
Over the past 50 years, the asteroid has visited Earth three times before — in 2018, 2008, and 1970. However, it has never come this close to the planet’s surface, only passing at great distances of tens of millions of miles from Earth. After today’s close flyby, the asteroid will disappear for an entire decade. In 2027, it will make a close pass by Mars and then return to our cosmic neighborhood in 2029, 2030, and 2041.
Interestingly enough, asteroid 2019 UL8 is not the only space rock to swing by Earth today. The rock was preceded by a much larger 1,476-foot Apollo asteroid, which cruised by Earth earlier this morning.