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Massive Asteroids to Glance by Earth in Coming Weeks


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Two asteroids will shoot by Earth on Saturday, according to NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies. Several more are expected to follow in the coming weeks.

A few of these bodies of rock and metal are reported to be larger than the Pyramid of Giza, which is 483 feet long. One of these is Asteroid 2021 SM3, which boasts a diameter of up to 525 feet. The largest of the coming batch is Asteroid 2004 UE, which is barely shorter than the Empire State Building with a diameter of about 1,250 feet.

Most of the 1,113,527 current-known asteroids are housed in the main asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, but occasionally some will come within a notable distance of Earth. Those asteroids are known as near-Earth objects, or NEOs, which are defined by NASA 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.”

This picture of the asteroid Bennu is a mosaic of 12 images taken by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft in Oct. 2020. Photo thanks to NASA.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the planet is in any danger of being clobbered by a flying space rock the size of a skyscraper. NEOs come within 120 million miles of Earth—which is still an almost unfathomable distance.

“Astronomically, these are coming close to the Earth. But in human terms, they are millions of miles away and can get no closer than millions of miles away,” director of the CNEO Paul Chodas told ABC News.

Asteroid 1996 VB3 will be one of the closest of any of the approaching asteroids, whizzing by Earth on Oct. 20 at 2.1 million miles away, according to USA Today’s reporting. 2004 UE will pass by on Nov. 13 at 2.6 million miles from Earth, and 2021 SM3 will be about 3.6 million miles away.

In comparison, Venus is still 25 million miles from Earth at its closest point, and Earth’s Moon is 238,900 miles away.

One of the smaller incoming asteroids will soar by at a notably close distance, though. 2021 TJ15 will get within 238,854 miles of the planet on Saturday.

“That asteroid has a diameter of 5.6 to 13 meters (18 to 42 feet),” Chodas said. “That’s a tiny asteroid coming to about the distance of the moon. It’s still a long, long way; it can’t hit the Earth, there’s no chance of that.”

Some asteroids are large enough to have their own moons. This image of Asteroid 243 Ida with its moon, Dactyl, was taken in the mid-1990s by the Galileo spacecraft. Photo thanks to NASA.

All in all, the chances of an asteroid hitting the planet in any capacity is a minute one—even when they do, there’s no need for alarm, Chodas said.

“Over the last 20 years of [tracking asteroids], we’ve had a total of four asteroids—tiny, tiny asteroids—that have been observed in space and headed for the Earth, and that have impacted the atmosphere and burned up,” Chodas said. “They became a bright fireball in each case.”

The CNEO has become very adept at tracking asteroids and their paths, especially those that do end up in the atmosphere.

“In two of the cases, we’ve predicted where they would hit ahead of time and predicted where to find the meteorites,” Chodas said. “Expeditions have gone out and found the meteorites. So our mathematics work pretty well.”

The approach of these asteroids coincides with the launch of NASA’s newest asteroid probe, which hurtled into space from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Saturday. The probe, named Lucy, will be the first to ever approach and study a group of asteroids around Jupiter known as Trojans. The mission will take 12 years to complete.

“With Lucy, we’re going to eight never-before-seen asteroids in 12 years with a single spacecraft,” said Lucy project scientist Tom Statler in an official NASA statement. “This is a fantastic opportunity for discovery as we probe into our solar system.”

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