A colossal asteroid, one believed to be up to 2,000-feet-wide, is currently headed for Earth and will swing by for a close -- but completely safe -- encounter with our planet on Wednesday, November 20, NASA has announced. The formidable space rock is known as asteroid 481394 (2006 SF6) and will creep in as close as 2.6 million miles from Earth's surface. To put that into perspective, that's a little over 11 times the distance between Earth and the moon.
While 2.6 million miles may sound like a vast distance in terrestrial terms, that's actually the closest that the giant asteroid has gotten to our planet in over eight decades. The last time that the massive space rock wandered closer to Earth was 84 years ago -- on November 20, 1935 -- when the asteroid missed our planet by 1.7 million miles.
Asteroid 481394 (2006 SF6) has been on NASA's radar for a very long time. As its name suggests, the enormous space rock was discovered 13 years ago -- on September 17, 2006, to be exact -- when it was picked up by asteroid trackers at NASA's Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Arizona.
The asteroid is estimated to be at least 918 feet across and can measure as much as 2,034 feet in diameter, per NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). At the upper end of that size estimate, the behemoth is 1.4 times the size of the Empire State Building in New York and twice as big as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.
Even at the lower end of NASA's size estimate, the massive asteroid still boasts impressive proportions. At 918-feet-wide, the space rock is twice as large as the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and nearly three times the size of the Statue of Liberty in New York.
Given its towering size, the mammoth asteroid has been flagged as potentially dangerous. NASA labels as "potentially hazardous" all asteroids that measure at least 460 feet in diameter and follow an orbital path that bring them within 4.66 million miles of Earth's orbit. And, based on the latest orbit data on asteroid 481394 (2006 SF6), the huge space rock will swoop in a lot closer to Earth when it pops by for a visit on Wednesday.
The asteroid is expected to approach Earth in the late hours of the afternoon. The rock is traveling at a cruising speed of a little under 18,000 mph and will reach its closest point to Earth at 7:01 p.m. ET. After that, the asteroid will exit the inner solar system and continue its journey around the sun.The gigantic space rock circles the sun once every 337 days or so, or just under a year. The asteroid often passes through our corner of space as it treks the solar system and is known as a frequent visitor of Earth. Once a decade, the rock swings by for a double flyby of Earth -- a pattern that is repeated for a couple of consecutive years, followed by another 10-year gap. Such was the case in 2017 and 2018, when the asteroid buzzed Earth two times each year, as well as in 2019.
The rock previously shot past Earth on February 26, when it flew at a staggering 29 million miles from the planet's surface. The asteroid will return for its next visit in 2020 and then disappear until 2029.
As it zips through the solar system, asteroid 481394 (2006 SF6) follows an orbital path similar to that of asteroid 2062 Aten, a gargantuan 2,950-foot space rock that orbits the sun once every 347 days. As such, the object is classified as an Aten-type asteroid.
As NASA explains, Aten asteroids circle the sun on an orbit that allows them not only to approach Earth, but also to cross the planet's orbit. In fact, asteroids of this class spend most of their time inside Earth's orbit, says NASA.
Asteroid 481394 (2006 SF6) is the largest space rock to cruise by Earth in quite a while. The last time Earth was visited by a larger asteroid was on September 14, when a 2,132-foot space rock passed within 3.31 million miles of the planet's surface. The rock will be preceded by a 720-foot asteroid due to buzz Earth on Monday from a distance of 4.2 million miles.