Later today, planet Earth will be buzzed by a huge asteroid, one thought to be so large that it could potentially dwarf the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. The formidable space rock will get relatively close to our planet, shooting past the terrestrial surface from just under 2.5 million miles away. To put that into perspective, that’s 10.4 times the distance between the Earth and the moon.
However, NASA assures that there’s no reason to panic, as the giant asteroid will harmlessly pass by Earth and continue its voyage around the sun. The rock’s passage through our corner of the solar system will be momentous but brief, with the asteroid not being likely to return anytime soon.
Today’s celestial visitor is known as asteroid 2020 AQ1. According to a report released yesterday by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the imposing space rock was discovered a little over two weeks ago and has been kept under close observation ever since. The object is an Apollo-type asteroid, which means it follows an orbital path that allows it not only to approach our planet but also to cross Earth’s orbit. As such, Apollo asteroids are known as “Earth-crossing,” and 2020 AQ1 is no exception.
The massive space rock orbits the sun once every 2.2 years. While its journey around the giant star has brought the asteroid to the inner solar system in the past — the rock recently visited the planet Venus, coming some 7.2 million miles from its scorching surface on January 11, 2018 — 2020 AQ1 has never been in Earth’s proximity before. Today’s flyby will be the rock’s first and only close encounter with our planet.
The asteroid is expected to swing by in the late hours of the evening. NASA predicts that the object will reach its closest point to Earth at 9:45 p.m. ET. As it does so, the sizable rock will be hurtling past us at a phenomenal speed of a little over 61,500 mph.
The huge asteroid is estimated to be at least 328 feet wide and can measure up to 754.5 feet in diameter, per NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). At the upper end of that size estimate, the rock is 1.6 times bigger than the iconic Egyptian pyramid. Even at the lower end of NASA’s size estimate, the asteroid is still larger than the Statue of Liberty in New York, which stands only 310 feet tall.
Given its proximity to our planet, asteroid 2020 AQ1 has been classified as a near-Earth object (NEO). As NASA explains, NEOs are celestial objects such as comets or asteroids that orbit somewhere between approximately 91 million and 121 million miles from the sun. This means that, in their journey around our star, NEOs can venture as far as about 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit and as close to the planet’s surface as a few times the distance to the moon – or even closer.
Such was the case three weeks ago, when a significantly smaller 55-foot Apollo asteroid wandered extremely close to our planet’s surface, skimming Earth from just 409,200 miles away — or 1.7 times the distance to the moon.