Looking Ahead at Navroz and Beyond With Renewed Hope and Optimism: (1) NASA Says 2021’s Largest Asteroid Will Pass Close to Our Planet on March 21, But Presents No Threat of Collision Now or For Centuries to Come!

Compiled and Adapted by MALIK MERCHANT
from the NASA Website

The largest asteroid to pass by Earth this year will approach within about 2 million kilometers (1.25 million miles) of our planet on March 21, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said on Thursday March 11, 2021.

Discovered 20 years ago and named 2001 FO32, the asteroid is at the smaller end of the scale, but it will still be the largest asteroid to pass this close to our planet in 2021. The last notably large asteroid close approach was that of 1998 OR2 on April 29, 2020. While 2001 FO32 is somewhat smaller than 1998 OR2, it will be three times nearer to Earth.

Though 2001 FO32 has been classified as “potentially hazardous asteroid” in terms of the distance from earth in astronomical terms, NASA has said that there is no threat of a collision with our planet now or for centuries to come. “We know the orbital path of 2001 FO32 around the Sun very accurately, since it was discovered 20 years ago and has been tracked ever since,” said Paul Chodas, director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), which is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California.

Over 95% of near-Earth asteroids the size of 2001 FO32 or larger have been discovered, tracked, and cataloged. None of the large asteroids in the catalog has any chance of impacting Earth over the next century, and it is extremely unlikely that any of the remaining undiscovered asteroids of this size could impact Earth, either. Still, efforts continue to discover all asteroids that could pose an impact hazard. The more information that can be gathered about these objects, the better mission designers can prepare to deflect them if any were to threaten Earth in the future.

The NASA Infrared Telescope Facility telescope during a lunar eclipse
The NASA Infrared Telescope Facility telescope during a lunar eclipse. The Facility is one of the telescopes that makes up the Maunakea Observatories on the Big Island of Hawai’i. The Facility provides vital and unequaled capabilities in planetary research while supporting NASA’s flight missions and Strategic Goal for Planetary Science. Maunakea is a place of immense reverance and cultural importance within the indigenous Hawaiian community. Photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAWAI’I.
NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii
This photo shows the view from inside the dome of NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility during a night of observing. The 3.2-meter (10.5-foot) telescope atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea will be used to measure the infrared spectrum of asteroid 2001 FO32. Photo Credit: UH/IfA

Follow up observations have suggested that 2001 FO32 is estimated to be about 1 km in diameter and between 440 to 680 meters wide. During its approach next weekend, 2001 FO32 will pass by at about 124,000 kph (77,000 mph) – faster than the speed at which most asteroids encounter Earth. The reason for the asteroid’s unusually speedy close approach is its highly inclined and elongated (or eccentric) orbit around the Sun (see photo at top of post).

The asteroids close encounter with our planet will present a valuable scientific opportunity for astronomers. Observations dating back 20 years revealed that about 15% of near-Earth asteroids comparable in size to 2001 FO32 have a small moon, said Lance Benner, principal scientist at JPL. Currently little is known about this object, so the very close encounter provides an outstanding opportunity to learn a great deal about this asteroid. The March 21 encounter will provide an opportunity for astronomers to get a more precise understanding of the asteroid’s size and albedo (i.e. how bright, or reflective, its surface is), and a rough idea of its composition.

After its brief visit, 2001 FO32 will continue its lonely voyage, not coming this close to Earth again until 2052, when it will pass by at about seven lunar distances, 2.8 million kilometers or 1.75 million miles.

Date posted: March 13, 2021.

Featured image at top of post: A diagram depicting the elongated and inclined orbit of 2001 FO32 as it travels around the Sun (white ellipse). Because of this orbit, when the asteroid makes its close approach to Earth on March 21, 2021, it will be traveling at an unusually fast speed of 124,000 kph (77,000 mph). Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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