A small asteroid is making its way towards our planet and will swoop in for an extremely close approach tomorrow, NASA has announced. The space rock is estimated to measure 49 feet in diameter at the most and will skim Earth from just 437,100 miles away -- or less than two times the distance to the moon. While a close brush with an asteroid of any size can certainly be unnerving, NASA points out that there's no reason to panic. The flyby will be a perfectly safe one, and won't cause any disturbance to Earth and its inhabitants.
Tomorrow's celestial visitor is known as asteroid 2020 FF1, and was only recently discovered. According to a report released earlier this week by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the space rock was picked up by asteroid trackers on Monday, March 16. After studying its orbital path, NASA classified the near-Earth object as an Apollo-type asteroid. This means that the rock has the potential of being "Earth-crossing," and can not only approach our planet but also cross its orbit.
As NASA explains, the orbit of an asteroid is calculated by taking careful measurements of its position as it moves across the sky. The data is compared to computer models of the rock's orbit around the sun. "It is possible to calculate a rough orbit with only three observations, but the more observations that are used, and the longer the period over which those observations are made, the more accurate is the calculated orbit and the predictions that can be made from it," states the space agency.
In the case of asteroid 2020 FF1, scientists spent two days observing the rock over a series of 13 different sessions. The data showed that the asteroid circles the sun once every two years or so, and that it has ventured to our corner of the solar system only once before -- on March 1, 2018.
NASA predicts that the rock will swing by Earth on Sunday evening, reaching nearest to our planet at 7:09 p.m. ET. At the time of its close approach, the asteroid will be traveling at a speed of more than 28,900 mph relative to Earth. About seven hours later, the asteroid will make a quick pass by the moon, scraping past the lunar surface from a distance of 474,300 miles.
Its previous trip through the Earth-moon system carried the asteroid significantly farther away from our planet. Two years ago, 2020 FF1 flew past us at a staggering distance of 34.6 million miles. The rock is not expected to return for the foreseeable future.