Look up Sunday afternoon! The largest, fastest asteroid of the year is expected to buzz by earth Sunday afternoon, providing astronomers a rare opportunity to examine a rocky mass that is believed to have been formed in our solar system’s earliest days. Roughly the size of the Golden Gate Bridge, the near-Earth asteroid, called 2001 FO32, will approach the Earth at a distance of about 1.25 million miles, which is roughly 5.25 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon.
While 2001 FO32 has been classified as a “potentially hazardous asteroid” by the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) and their classification of near-Earth objects (NEOs), there is no threat of a collision with our planet when it approaches Earth Sunday afternoon. 2001 FO32 is forecast to be closest to Earth at 12:03 pm ET Sunday.
“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 CNEOS, which is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “There is no chance the asteroid will get any closer to Earth than 1.25 million miles.” CNEOS computes high-precision orbits for near-Earth objects (NEOs) in support of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, relying on telescopes and ground-based radar to help precisely characterize every NEO’s orbit to improve long-term hazard assessments.
During this approach, 2001 FO32 will pass by at about 77,000 mph (124,000 kph) – 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 orbit around the Sun, an orbit that is tilted 39 degrees to Earth’s orbital plane. This orbit takes the asteroid closer to the Sun than Mercury and twice as far from the Sun as Mars.
According to NASA, as 2001 FO32 makes its inner solar system journey, the asteroid picks up speed like a skateboarder rolling down a halfpipe, and then slows after being flung back out into deep space and swinging back toward the Sun. It completes one orbit every 810 days, which is roughly every 2.5 years.
Casual observers without a telescope can watch the near-miss unfold online at the Virtual Telescope here: https://www.virtualtelescope.eu/2021/03/04/potentially-hazardous-asteroid-231937-2001-fo32-close-encounter-online-observations-22-mar-2021/
Scientists will be relying on a telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea to better understand the rocky mass moving through the solar system The University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy (IfA)-operated Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) near the summit of Mauna Kea will be used to analyze the characteristics of 2001 FO32.
“The object’s size and composition can be measured using infrared instruments,” said IRTF Director John Rayner. “Measuring the physical characteristics of large Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) is vital to expanding critical knowledge of hazardous objects should one ever threaten our planet. Determining whether an impacting asteroid might break up in the Earth’s atmosphere or travel all the way to the ground is important for understanding how widespread the potential damage might be, and the resulting hazard to human life.”
According to the University of Hawaii, NASA funds the 3.2-meter telescope, which is one of several observatories on the islands of Hawaii and Maui that play a key role in the nation’s planetary defense system.
NEOs are asteroids and comets that orbit the Sun like the planets, but their orbits can bring them into Earth’s neighborhood – within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit. Planetary defense is “applied planetary science” to address the NEO impact hazard.
NASA established the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) to manage its ongoing mission of planetary defense. The PDCO provides early detection of potentially hazardous objects (PHOs) – the subset of NEOs whose orbits predict they will come within 5 million miles of Earth’s orbit; and of a size large enough (30 to 50 meters) to cause significant damage on Earth, tracks and characterizes PHOs and issues warnings of the possible effects of potential impacts, studies strategies and technologies for mitigating PHO impacts, and also plays a lead role in coordinating U.S. government planning for response to an actual impact threat.
While the 2001 FO32 NEO isn’t a threat to Earth, scientists will use data from the IRTF to understand its composition. “We’re trying to do geology with a telescope,” said Vishnu Reddy, associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson. “We’re going to use the IRTF to get the infrared spectrum to see its chemical makeup. Once we know that, we can make comparisons with meteorites on Earth to find out what minerals 2001 FO32 contains.”