Planet Earth is in for a close encounter with a fairly large asteroid later today. The object is barreling through the void of space at phenomenal speeds and will reach our planet's vicinity in the late hours of the night, safely passing by Earth as it orbits the sun.
The intrepid space rock is known as asteroid 2020 BN3 and will swoop by for a so-called "close Earth approach" sometime in the final minutes of the day. NASA predicts that the object will reach its closest point to Earth at 11:52 p.m. ET, zooming past us at breakneck speeds of more than 64,600 mph. As it does so, the asteroid will come within 1.6 million miles of the planet's surface -- or about 6.8 times the distance between Earth and the moon.
Interestingly enough, today's flyby of Earth will be the asteroid's first and only trip through our cosmic neighborhood. According to a report released yesterday by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the rock circles the sun once every four years or so -- but has never before wandered through our corner of space.
The asteroid was discovered just five days ago and was immediately classified as a near-Earth object (NEO). As NASA explains, NEOs are celestial bodies -- such as comets and asteroids -- "that have been nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits that allow them to enter the Earth's neighborhood."
Although these objects typically buzz Earth from distances of millions of miles away, their approach to our planet is considered a close one compared to usual astronomical scales. As such, NASA asteroid trackers are keeping an eye on these space rocks, calculating their orbit, size, speed, and proximity to Earth.
Asteroid 2020 BN3 was not exempt, as JPL scientists spent the week monitoring the rock over the course of 51 observations -- an impressive number, given the short time elapsed since the asteroid's discovery. The scientists' efforts enabled them to find out more about the rock's orbital path and to determine that the object is an Apollo-type asteroid. Asteroids of this class are known as "Earth-crossing," since they follow orbital paths that allow them to not only approach our planet, but also to intersect -- or cross -- Earth's orbit.
This particular Apollo asteroid is estimated to measure at least 75 feet in diameter and can be up to 167 feet wide, per NASA's Center For Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). The size estimate places 2020 BN3 somewhat on the moderate side. For instance, the rock can't hold a candle to the huge 750-foot Apollo asteroid that shot past Earth last Sunday -- but it is still significantly larger than the tiny 32-foot Apollo asteroid that skimmed our planet yesterday morning from only 37,200 miles away.
After its late-night brush with Earth, asteroid 2020 BN3 will continue its journey around the sun. The space rock is not expected to return to our neck of the cosmic woods anytime soon.