On January 7, Earth is in for a close encounter with a large, pyramid-sized asteroid that will perform its closest-ever approach to our planet, NASA has announced. The imposing space rock is believed to be nearly as big as the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and will hurtle past us at a formidable speed of just under 50,000 mph, buzzing the planet from just a few million miles away.
According to a recent report from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), our celestial visitor is known as asteroid 2020 AJ1 and is an Apollo asteroid. This means that it circles the sun on an orbital path that allows it not only to approach Earth, but also to cross the planet’s orbit. The rock is expected to swing by in the late hours of Tuesday morning.
NASA predicts that the asteroid will reach its closest point to our planet at 10 a.m. ET, when it will pass within 3.2 million miles from Earth’s surface. To put that into perspective, that’s almost 13.5 times the distance between Earth and the moon.
Interestingly enough, asteroid 2020 AJ1 almost slipped past NASA’s radar. As its name suggests, the object was discovered in the short span of time elapsed since the beginning of the year, and was, in fact, just spotted yesterday. Despite the short amount of time at their disposal, JPL scientists were very diligent in calculating the asteroid’s orbit in order to ascertain how close it will get to Earth.
The team performed no less than 68 observations of the asteroid’s position as it moved across the sky and then compared their findings with computer simulations of the rock’s orbit. The efforts helped determine that the large asteroid will safely shoot past Earth on Tuesday, posing no threat to our planet.
The sizable near-Earth asteroid is estimated to measure at least 193.5 feet in diameter and can be up to 426.5 feet wide, per NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). At the upper end of that size estimate, the space rock is nearly 1.4 times larger than the Statue of Liberty in New York.
One interesting thing about asteroid 2020 AJ1 is that it orbits the sun once every 629 days or so, or about 1.7 years, passing through our corner of space once every 100 years. The rock actually performs two Earth flybys per century, the close approaches occurring within a short time frame of just two years from one another.
The asteroid previously visited our planet in July of 2018, marking its first Earth flyby of the century. Before that, the rock wandered through our cosmic neighborhood in January of 1908. The hefty asteroid is due for another trip through our neck of the cosmic woods in another 100 years’ time, returning in July, 2118, and then again in January, 2120.
However, none of these flybys — past or future — can rival next week’s encounter in terms of proximity to Earth.