The largest asteroid to approach our planet in 2021 will arrive this weekend. Based on optical measurements, 2001 FO32 is estimated to be roughly 3,000 feet wide and twice the size of the Eiffel Tower in diameter.
According to a report from NASA, the asteroid does not pose a threat to Earth, and will present a valuable scientific opportunity for astronomers to observe an object that formed at the dawn of our solar system.
Experts hope to gain a better understanding of the size of 2001 FO32, as well as some clues about its composition by studying light reflecting off its surface.
“When sunlight hits an asteroid’s surface, minerals in the rock absorb some wavelengths while reflecting others,” said NASA. “By studying the spectrum of light reflecting off the surface, astronomers can measure the chemical ‘fingerprints’ of the minerals on the surface of the asteroid.”
On March 21, 2001 FO32 will make its closest approach at a distance of about 1.25 million miles, which is 5.25 times the distance from Earth to the Moon.
Paul Chodas is the director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), which is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“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 Chodas. “There is no chance the asteroid will get any closer to Earth than 1.25 million miles.”
Regardless, the distance from 2001 FO32 to Earth will still be close in astronomical terms, which is why it has been designated as a potentially hazardous asteroid.
This time around, 2001 FO32 will zip by at about 77,000 miles per hour, which is unusually fast compared to most asteroids that approach Earth. After its brief appearance, 2001 FO32 will not approach our planet again until 2052, when it will pass by at about seven lunar distances, or 1.75 million miles.
NASA said that amateur astronomers will be able to gather information of their own about 2001 FO32.
“The asteroid will be brightest while it moves through southern skies,” said Chodas. “Amateur astronomers in the southern hemisphere and at low northern latitudes should be able to see this asteroid using moderate size telescopes with apertures of at least 8 inches in the nights leading up to closest approach, but they will probably need star charts to find it.”
NASA scientists noted that the asteroid poses no threat of a collision with our planet now or for centuries to come.
More information about CNEOS, asteroids, and near-Earth objects can be found here.
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer