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"Potentially hazardous" asteroid will zoom by Earth this week, and you can watch it

This week, a colossal asteroid, nearly the size of a skyscraper and labeled “potentially hazardous,” is set to zoom past our planet. However, scientists assure us that there’s no reason for alarm. This celestial event will even be available for live viewing.

The Virtual Telescope Project reveals that Asteroid 1994 XD, the aforementioned asteroid, will reach its nearest proximity to Earth on the evening of Monday, June 12, right before 9 p.m. EDT. You can watch a livestream of the flyby at this website.

Various groups, including the Virtual Telescope Project, are vigilantly tracking this asteroid as it approaches our planet in its orbit. Furthermore, plans are underway to provide a live feed of the asteroid’s fly-by.

Don’t let the “potentially hazardous” label scare you

Despite its potentially hazardous tag, NASA confirms that there’s no cause for concern about this asteroid striking Earth. It’s termed “potentially hazardous” because its orbit crosses the minimal distance between Earth and the Sun, thus fulfilling the requisite criteria.

The NASA Center for Near Earth Object Studies (NEOS) uses complex computer models to ascertain the orbits of near earth asteroids and comets, and calculate their likelihood of colliding with Earth. In the month of June alone, NEOS is monitoring more than a dozen such close approaches.

Even as the asteroid nears, there will be ample distance separating us from it, ensuring we can observe it in the night sky without apprehension.

The Virtual Telescope Project emphasizes that while Asteroid 1994 XD will have a close encounter with Earth on June 12, the term “close” is relative in the vast expanse of space. At its closest, the asteroid will be about eight times the Earth-moon distance away, or over 1.9 million miles away.

Making its journey around the sun approximately every 3.6 years, Asteroid 1994 XD is scheduled to make another fly-by of Earth in 2041.

Details about “potentially hazardous” Asteroid 1994 XD

The naming of this asteroid harks back to the year of its discovery. The Spacewatch group at the Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona first spotted it in December 1994.

Despite being relatively small for an asteroid, with an estimated diameter of about 370 to 830 meters (or 1,214 to 2,723 feet), Asteroid 1994 XD would still overshadow most skyscrapers in New York City.

Intriguingly, using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 2005, astronomers discovered that 1994 XD is a binary asteroid. This means it’s a larger asteroid with a moonlet in orbit around it.

Thankfully, despite being labeled potentially hazardous, Asteroid 1994 XD poses no direct threat to life on Earth. However, if a large asteroid were to ever pose a direct threat to the Earth, NASA believes they have a plan to save us.

In 2022, NASA successfully executed its Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission (DART). The mission intentionally propelled a rocket into an asteroid to manipulate the space rock’s orbital speed.

Rather than obliterating the asteroid completely, the mission demonstrated that direct rocket attacks can indeed effect significant changes in a space rock’s orbital parameters. According to NASA, this proves the viability of missions like these as a method of planetary defense.

NASA’s Asteroid Watch program

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is at the helm of an initiative that’s keeping a vigilant eye on the skies: the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). The Center’s mandate is to precisely characterize the trajectories of all known near-Earth objects, forecast their close encounters with our home planet, and conduct in-depth assessments of any potentially hazardous impact possibilities.

What exactly are these near-Earth objects? They’re a motley crew of asteroids and comets whose orbits bring them tantalizingly close—within a mere 120 million miles—to the Sun. That means they frequently take a spin through our neighborhood, the Earth’s orbit. These space wanderers vary in size, from as small as 10 feet to gargantuan objects nearly 25 miles across.

How NASA tracks NEOs

The process of determining the orbit of these celestial bodies is akin to fitting puzzle pieces together. Scientists find the elliptical path through the cosmos that aligns best with all existing observations. These observations can span multiple orbits and stretch across years, even decades.

As scientists gather more data, they can refine their predictions. With increasing accuracy, they can forecast where a given object will be in the distant future, and crucially, if it might veer too close to Earth.

Now, don’t get too alarmed. The vast majority of these objects’ orbits won’t ever bring them into uncomfortably close quarters with Earth. However, a minuscule percentage dubbed as potentially hazardous asteroids warrants a closer look.

These celestial bodies exceed about 460 feet in size and their orbits can bring them as near as 4.6 million miles of Earth’s solar orbit. It’s the CNEOS’ responsibility to incessantly monitor these objects, evaluating any potential risks they may pose.

Where does CNEOS source this data?

The primary reference point is the databases of the Minor Planet Center, the global authority for measurements of small-body positions. Observatories scattered across the globe, including amateur observers, contribute to this data pool.

However, the lion’s share of asteroid-tracking data comes from prominent NASA-funded observatories like Pan-STARRS, the Catalina Sky Survey, and NASA’s NEOWISE mission. And we’re anticipating significant future contributions from NEO Surveyor. Let’s not forget the invaluable planetary radar projects, such as JPL’s Goldstone Solar System Radar Group, which form an integral part of NASA’s NEO Observations Program.

Other CNEOS programs are equally important

CNEOS is also the birthplace of the Sentry impact-monitoring system. This innovative system tirelessly conducts long-term analyses of future orbits of potentially dangerous asteroids. The good news? As of now, there are no known significant threats for the next century or more.

Adding another feather to its cap, CNEOS maintains the Scout system, which keeps an eye on potential near-Earth object detections even before their official recognition. Its role? To ascertain if any of these usually tiny asteroids might pose a short-term (possibly imminent) impact risk.

In a bid to support NASA’s planetary defense initiatives, CNEOS leads mock impact exercises. These simulations provide vital insights to national and international space and disaster response agencies on how to navigate a potential asteroid impact scenario. They educate scientists and key decision-makers about the alert systems and impact mitigation strategies that could come into play if a threatening object were to be identified.

For more comprehensive details about near-Earth objects and to access close approach and impact-risk data for all known near-Earth objects, head over to CNEOS’ website. To learn more about the Planetary Defense Coordination Office and NASA’s planetary defense strategy, visit NASA’s Planetary Defense page.

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