On Friday, planet Earth is in for a close encounter with a pyramid-sized asteroid that will harmlessly fly past us from just a few million miles away. Dubbed 2019 WR3, the space rock was only recently discovered and is an Apollo-type asteroid that frequently wanders through our cosmic neighborhood in its journey around the sun.
According to a report released today by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the asteroid is expected to swing by Earth in the afternoon, reaching its closest point to Earth’s surface at 3:52 p.m. ET on December 6. The rock will approach our planet at a velocity of 16,800 mph, or about 22 times the speed of sound. As it does so, the sizeable asteroid will creep in as close as 3.3 million miles from the terrestrial surface. To put that into perspective, that’s a little over 14 times the distance between Earth and the moon.
Asteroid 2019 WR3 hasn’t been on NASA’s radar for too long. The wayfaring space rock was picked up by NASA asteroid trackers a mere four days ago on November 27. Despite the short time elapsed since the discovery, the space agency has rigorously monitored the asteroid and assures it poses no threat of veering off course and potentially hitting Earth.
As NASA explains, the trajectory of an asteroid is calculated by taking careful measurements of its position as it moves across the sky, and comparing those observations to computer models of its orbit around the sun. In the case of asteroid 2019 WR3, scientists have performed a whopping 74 observations to plot its course through the inner solar system, the last one of which was carried out yesterday.
One of the most striking things about next week’s visitor is its impressive size. The asteroid boasts an estimated diameter of anywhere between 230 feet and 560 feet, per NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). At the upper end of that size estimate, the asteroid is 1.2 times larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, and nearly twice as big as the Statue of Liberty in New York. Even at the lower end of NASA’s size estimate, the rock is still bigger than any of the three asteroids that shot past Earth today.
The asteroid’s orbit around the sun is equally intriguing. The object circles the giant star once every 561 days, or about 1.5 years, and follows an orbital path that typically brings it within several tens of million of miles from Earth’s surface. However, once every half a century or so, the asteroid ventures a lot closer to our planet — as it’s about to happen next week. In fact, its upcoming flyby of Earth is the closest that asteroid 2019 WR3 will get to our planet in 63 years. The last time the rock buzzed Earth from a comparable distance was in 1956 when it came within 3.5 million miles of our planet.
Its previous visit occurred in 2017 and only brought the large asteroid some 42.7 million miles from Earth. The space rock will return for another trip through our neck of the cosmic woods in 2022 and 2023. After that, it will disappear for nearly six decades, only to resurface in 2079.