A relatively huge asteroid, one thought to be so large that it could potentially dwarf the Great Pyramid of Giza, is set to shoot past Earth today, NASA has just announced. The formidable space rock is an Apollo-type asteroid known as 2019 WQ3 and will buzz our planet later this evening, zooming past us at a staggering speed of nearly 40,000 mph. While a close brush with an object of such towering proportions can understandably be unsettling, NASA assures there’s no cause for alarm, as it will pass at a safe distance from Earth. The object is expected to approach our planet at 10:07 p.m. EST when it will fly within 2.3 million miles from the terrestrial surface. To put that into perspective, that’s 9.66 times the distance between Earth and the moon.
According to a report released today by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), today’s close encounter will be one for the records for asteroid 2019 WQ3. The large chunk of space rock orbits the sun once every 806 days, or 2.2 years, and only seldom wanders through our corner of the solar system as it circles the giant star. In fact, the object is currently engaged in its second known flyby of Earth, after visiting our planet nearly eight decades ago, in 1944. At the time, the wayfaring space rock only wandered as close as 33.3 million miles from Earth. As such, today’s encounter will bring the near-Earth asteroid significantly closer to the planet’s surface than it has traveled before.
The interesting thing about the giant asteroid is that it almost slipped past NASA’s radar, as it was picked up by NASA trackers a mere two days ago. Although the object was only recently discovered, scientists have just enough time to study its trajectory and plot its course through the inner solar system in order to determine how close to Earth the rock will pass.
As NASA explains, astronomers calculate the orbit of an asteroid by taking careful measurements of its position as it moves across the sky. Those measurements are then compared to computer models of the object’s orbital path to confirm that the predictions match the direct observations. As expected, the predictions and calculations become more accurate as scientists spend more time frequently observing the rock over a larger period of time.
While NASA scientists only had two days at their disposal to study asteroid 2019 WQ3, the team performed an impressive 62 observation sessions to verify that the rock will harmlessly pass by Earth.
The object is believed to be at least 285 feet wide and can measure up to 623 feet in diameter, per NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). At the upper end of that size estimate, the rock is 1.36 times larger than the famed pyramid in Egypt, and a little over twice the size of the Statue of Liberty in New York. As remarkable as that may be, it pales in comparison with the massive 720-foot Apollo asteroid that cruised by Earth last week, on November 18.
The rock is not expected to return for the foreseeable future.