Planet Earth is in for a series of close asteroid encounters over the weekend. Three space rocks are due to swing by Earth on Saturday alone, NASA has announced.
The three celestial visitors may all be stopping by on the same day, but they couldn’t be more different from one another. Two of these asteroids were recently discovered, whereas one of them has been on NASA’s radar for nearly a year. The rocks vary in size and speed, and will approach Earth at different times of day, harmlessly cruising past at safe distances that range between a little over 1 million miles to a few million miles.
In addition, the objects fall under two separate asteroid categories based on their orbits around the sun. As such, watchers will be seeing both the Apollo and Aten variety swing by on Saturday, in a mixed multi-asteroid flyby that will bring two space rocks within several times the distance to the moon.
Asteroid 2019 WJ6
The first one to pop by for a visit on Saturday is a 262-foot asteroid known as 2019 WJ6. First spotted nearly a month ago, on November 7, this is the biggest and the fastest of the bunch. At 262-feet wide, the space rock is 1.4 times larger than the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.
The asteroid is expected to approach Earth just in time for morning coffee on December 7 and will reach its closest point to our planet at 8:46 a.m. ET. At the time, the rock will be hurtling past at a formidable break-neck speed of nearly 47,250 mph, buzzing Earth from some 1.7 million miles away. To put that into perspective, that’s almost 7.5 times the distance between Earth and the moon.
While 1.7 million miles may sound like a vast distance by terrestrial standards, in cosmic terms it’s actually a stone’s throw away. In fact, this is the closest that asteroid 2019 WJ6 has ever gotten to our planet.
According to a report released today by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the rock orbits the sun once every 1,354 days, or 3.7 years, occasionally passing by Jupiter, Venus, and Earth as it flies around the giant star. The object follows an orbital path consistent with that of Apollo-type asteroids, which are “Earth-crossing” space rocks named after the nearly mile-wide asteroid 1862 Apollo, and not only approach Earth, but also cross the planet’s orbit.
In the past, asteroid 2019 WJ6 has visited Earth two other times — in 1939 and 2016. During its previous flybys, the rock only managed to come within 33.8 million miles and 36.2 million miles of Earth, respectively. The asteroid will return for another visit 71 years from now, in 2090, when it’s expected to approach Earth from 4.8 million miles away.
Asteroid 2019 XP
Several hours after asteroid 2019 WJ6 completes its morning flyby of Earth, a smaller space rock will swoop by for the second close encounter of the day. Dubbed asteroid 2019 XP, this is the smallest and the slowest of the group. The rock is also the most recently discovered of the three and will fly the closest to the planet’s surface.
Picked up by NASA asteroid trackers a mere two days ago, asteroid 2019 XP is estimated to measure no more than 88.5 feet in diameter. The rock is cruising through space at speeds of a little over 27,100 mph and will make its approach to Earth at 4:17 p.m. ET. The object will creep in within 1.3 million miles from the planet’s surface, or 5.5 times the distance to the moon.
Just like its predecessor, 2019 XP is also an Apollo asteroid. The rock circles the sun once every 780 days, or a little over two years, and is currently embarked on its first-ever trip through our corner of the solar system. The object will not be returning for the foreseeable future, per JPL.
Asteroid 2018 XW2
The triple asteroid flyby will be complete with the close approach of asteroid 2018 XW2. As its name suggests, the rock was discovered last year — on December 10, 2018, to be exact. According to JPL, the asteroid completes a full orbit around the sun in one year, passing through our neck of the cosmic woods almost at every lap.
Based on its orbital path, the rock is classified as an Aten-type asteroid. Named after asteroid 2062 Aten, a nearly 3,000-foot chunk of rock that orbits the sun once every 347 days, asteroids of this class also intersect Earth’s orbit, just like Apollo asteroids, with the added difference that they spend most of their time inside Earth’s orbit.
The wayfaring space rock is estimated to be around 154-feet across and will swoop in for its close flyby of Earth around 20 minutes after asteroid 2019 XP. The object is traveling at speeds of nearly 29,000 mph and will fly the farthest away from Earth, only coming within 4.1 million miles of the planet’s surface, or more than 17 times the lunar distance.
The rock will return on a yearly basis up until 2029, after which it will intermittently buzz the planet Venus between 2057 and 2195.
Saturday’s multi-asteroid flyby is the latest in a string of close encounters to occur since the beginning of the month. The flyby comes just six days after another asteroid trio buzzed Earth on December 1. Two more asteroids are expected to swing by for a close approach on Sunday.