A colossal asteroid is making its way towards Earth and will swing by for a close -- but perfectly safe -- approach tomorrow, NASA has announced. The massive space rock is thought to be up to 1,443-feet-wide, or almost the size of the Empire State Building in New York. The object is hurtling through space at phenomenal speeds of just under 56,550 mph and will reach Earth's vicinity early afternoon on February 3, passing some 2.6 million miles from the planet's surface. To put that into perspective, that's a little more than 11 times the distance between Earth and the moon.
One of the many interesting things about the celestial interloper is that the giant asteroid was only recently discovered. According to a report released yesterday by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the formidable space rock was spotted just six days ago, on January 27. The asteroid was dubbed 2020 BX12 and was immediately 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 the sun, NEOs can venture as far as roughly 30 million miles away from Earth's orbit and as close to the planet's surface as a few times the distance to the moon — or even closer.
As far as NEOs go, asteroid 2020 BX12 is one of the heftiest to swing through our cosmic neighborhood in recent weeks. Data from NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) places the rock within a size range of between 656 feet and 1,443 feet in diameter. At the upper end of that size estimate, the asteroid is 3.1 times larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Even at the lower end of NASA's size estimate, the object remains every bit as formidable -- it's still 1.4 times the size of the iconic Egyptian pyramid and 2.1 times bigger than the Statue of Liberty in New York.
Given its impressive scale, 2020 BX12 has been labeled as potentially dangerous. The rock was officially classified as a "potentially hazardous asteroid" (PHA), a distinction that is given to celestial objects that are at least 460-feet-wide and fly within 4.66 million miles of Earth's orbit. To clarify, the PHA label doesn't suggest that the asteroid will slam into our planet or pose a threat to it. Rather, the ominous designation refers to its towering proportions and close proximity to Earth.
The massive asteroid is expected to approach Earth at 1:55 p.m. EST tomorrow, swiftly and harmlessly whooshing past us as it treks the inner solar system. NASA assures that the giant space rock is no cause for concern and that it will leave our planet undisturbed.
Interestingly enough, tomorrow's flyby will be the first close encounter with Earth for the wayfaring space rock. The object orbits the sun once every two years but has never ventured through our corner of the solar system before. After studying its orbit over the course of 45 observations carried out in the span of four days, JPL scientists determined that 2020 BX12 follows the orbital path of an Apollo-type asteroid. These objects form an interesting class of NEOs, as they are known for their potential to be "Earth-crossing." Named after asteroid 1862 Apollo, space rocks of this class zip around the solar system on an orbital path that allows them not only to approach Earth but also to occasionally cross the planet's orbit.
After tomorrow's close encounter, it will be a long time before 2020 BX12 returns for a second visit. The rock will shoot past Mars later this year, buzzing the Red Planet from 3.9 million miles away on June 28. However, it will be nearly a century before the object swings by Earth again. Its next flyby is predicted to occur as late as 2113 and won't be nearly as close as this one. The asteroid will swoop by our planet on July 26 -- 93 years from now -- but only manage to come a staggering 25 million miles away.