A colossal asteroid, one thought to be so large it could potentially dwarf the Empire State Building in New York, is gearing up for a so-called "close Earth approach" on Friday, scientists as NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have announced. The massive space rock is expected to buzz our planet in the morning, making its first flyby of Earth in 13 years.
While a close encounter with an asteroid this size can understandably send shivers down the spines of the bravest and most dedicated of space enthusiasts, NASA assures there's no reason to panic. The giant space rock will harmlessly shoot past us come Friday morning, on what will be its second brush with Earth since the asteroid's discovery in 2006.
Known as asteroid 216258 (2006 WH1), the formidable space rock is traveling through the solar system at a cruising speed of a little over 26,300 mph. The object is expected to reach its closest point to Earth at 10:17 a.m. ET, when it will come within a safe distance of 3.6 million miles from the planet's surface. To put that into perspective, that's nearly 15.2 times the distance between Earth and the moon.
The rock is among the largest asteroids to swing through our cosmic neighborhood in recent weeks. Data from NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) places the asteroid within a size range of between 787.4 feet and 1,771.65 feet in diameter. At the upper end of that size estimate, the asteroid is 1.2 times larger than the Empire State Building, antenna included, and 1.6 times bigger than the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.
Even at the lower end of NASA's size estimate, the rock is still 1.7 times bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, and nearly 2.6 times the size of the Statue of Liberty in New York. The last time planet Earth was visited by an asteroid this large was exactly one month ago, when a gargantuan 2,000-foot space rock passed some 2.6 million miles from the terrestrial surface.
Given its incredible proportions, asteroid 216258 (2006 WH1) has been classified as a "potentially hazardous asteroid" (PHA). While certainly ominous-sounding, this designation does not suggest that the rock runs the risk of putting Earth in danger. As The Inquisitr previously reported, the PHA label is attached to all near-Earth asteroids that are at least 460-feet-wide and come within 4.66 million miles of our planet's orbit.
The mammoth asteroid has long been on NASA's radar. The rock was first discovered by La Sagra Observatory in Granada, Spain, on November 18, 2006, exactly one month before it made a close pass of Earth, buzzing the planet from 3.3 million miles away. The object has been attentively monitored for the past 13 years, as NASA has kept a close eye on the asteroid's orbit in order to predict its future flybys of Earth, and to calculate how close it would come to our planet.
As NASA explains, the orbit of an asteroid is calculated through careful measurements of its position as it treks across the sky. The data is then compared to computer simulations of the rock's orbital path, to ensure maximum accuracy. In the case of asteroid 216258 (2006 WH1), JPL scientists have performed a staggering 847 observations of its movements across the sky, the last of which was carried out today.
The asteroid orbits the sun once every 790 days, or 2.1 years, circling the giant star on an orbit that occasionally allows it to not only approach Earth, but also to cross the planet's orbit. As such, it has been classified as an Apollo asteroid -- a class of space rocks known to be "Earth-crossing."
The massive object makes frequent passes of Earth and Mars in its journey around the sun. Over the last 118 years, the asteroid has visited Earth a total of 12 times, and swung by Mars on a couple of occasions. After tomorrow's flyby, the rock will return for another trip through our neck of the cosmic woods in 2022, and then again in 2032 and 2035.
Its close approach follows the flyby of another Apollo giant, a 1,443-foot asteroid that swung by Earth earlier today.