Later this week, planet Earth is in for a close encounter with a colossal asteroid, one thought to be nearly as large as the Empire State Building in New York. The giant rock is traveling through the solar system at break-neck speeds and will reach our planet's proximity on Thursday morning, NASA has announced.
The formidable space rock is known as asteroid 2019 XQ3 and is currently embarked on its first-ever trip through our neck of the cosmic woods. The huge asteroid is expected to swing by Earth just in time for the morning coffee, barreling past us at 8:45 a.m. ET on December 19. At the time, the rock will be darting by at an incredible velocity of a little over 63,000 mph. Thankfully, the close approach will be a perfectly harmless one, as NASA assures the enormous space rock will only come within a safe distance of 4 million miles from the planet's surface. To put that into perspective, that's exactly 16.81 times the distance between Earth and the moon.
The interesting thing about the massive asteroid is that it almost quietly slipped past NASA's radar. Data released by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) showed that 2019 XQ3 was discovered a mere three days ago. Ever since it got picked up by NASA asteroid trackers, the giant rock has been attentively monitored. The JPL team performed a series of 21 observations in order to measure its position as it cruised across the sky so that they could calculate the asteroid's orbit. The last one of these observations was carried out today.
In a bid to maximize the data accuracy, the team compared the measurements with computer simulations of the object's orbital path. As NASA explains, the predictions and calculations become more accurate as scientists spend more time frequently observing the rock over a larger period of time.
The results indicated that 2019 XQ3 follows an orbit consistent with Apollo-type asteroids -- space rocks that can not only approach Earth, but also cross the planet's orbit. The rock was also found to circle the sun once every 518 days, or about 1.4 years.
Perhaps the most striking aspect about asteroid 2019 XQ3 is its gargantuan size. The rock is estimated to be at least 656 feet wide and is believed to measure as much as 1.443 feet in diameter. At the upper end of that size estimate, the asteroid is about the size of the Empire State Building, antenna included -- and is more than three times bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Even at the lower end of NASA's size estimate, the object is still 1.4 times the size of the iconic Egyptian pyramid and 2.1 times larger than the Statue of Liberty in New York.
Due to its towering size, asteroid 2019 XQ3 has been designated as potentially dangerous. The rock bares the label of "potentially hazardous asteroid," or PHA, which is given to objects that measure at least 460 feet in diameter and follow orbital paths that bring them within 4.66 million miles of Earth's orbit. To clarify, the PHA label doesn't suggest that the asteroid will slam into Earth or pose a threat to our planet. Rather, the ominous designation refers to its massive proportions and close proximity to Earth.
Following this week's flyby of Earth, the asteroid will double back for another visit in June. However, its second close encounter with Earth will carry it significantly farther away from our planet, as the rock is expected to buzz Earth from a staggering 34.9 million miles away in 2020.