A tiny space rock has just scraped past Earth in what was the closest asteroid encounter not only of 2020 so far, but also in quite a long time. The teeny rock was one of the smallest to traipse through our cosmic neighborhood in recent months — and managed to creep in closer than any other asteroid has done in the past year.
Today’s celestial visitor is known as asteroid 2020 BH6. The object flew extremely close to our planet’s surface, skimming Earth closer than the moon. According to a report released by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the space rock approached Earth shortly after midnight, swooping past us at 12:11 a.m. ET. At the time, the asteroid was traveling at an incredible speed of 22,800 mph and buzzed Earth from only 37,200 miles away.
To put that into perspective, the moon sits at an average distance of 238,900 miles from Earth. This means that the asteroid passed at 0.18 times the distance to the moon during today’s near-miss. The last time an asteroid came comparably close to Earth was in late November, when a 42-foot space rock zoomed past our planet from 65,100 miles away, or 0.28 times the lunar distance.
However, the rock’s trip through the Earth-moon system has not ended with its close brush with our planet. The asteroid will also swing by the moon later this morning, for another close approach that will bring it a short distance from the lunar surface. NASA predicts that the object will shoot past the moon at 8:14 a.m. ET, flying as close as 167,400 miles from Earth’s natural satellite.
The interesting thing about asteroid 2020 BH6 is that it almost slipped past NASA’s radar. The object was only discovered yesterday — less than 24 hours before its close flyby of Earth. The asteroid is estimated to measure no more than 32.8 feet in diameter, per NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). After studying its orbit over the course of 44 observations — a considerable number, given the short amount of time elapse since the rock’s discovery — JPL scientists determined that 2020 BH6 is an Apollo-type asteroid and announced that it would not pose any danger to our planet. As an Apollo asteroid, the object follows an orbital path that allows it not only to approach Earth but also to cross the planet’s orbit — which is exactly what has happened today.
Orbital data gathered by the JPL team revealed that the asteroid circles the sun once every 2.4 years, occasionally passing through our corner of space as it does so. The scientists were even able to pinpoint the dates of its past flybys of Earth, as well as its future ones. The asteroid previously visited Earth in 2015 and 2002. Three other flybys of Earth occurred between 1903 and 1964. However, none of these past trips through our neck of the cosmic woods has brought the rock remotely as close as it came today.
The asteroid will return in 2031 and then again in 2040.