Thursday, January 20

A kilometer-long asteroid will approach Earth on March 21

This photo shows the view from inside the dome of NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility

This photo shows the view from inside the dome of NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility

The largest asteroid expected to pass near Earth in 2021 will be at its closest on March 21. 2001 FO32, one kilometer wide, will pass 2 million kilometers from us.

Although at a safe distance, your visit will provide astronomers with a unique opportunity to get a good look at a rock relic which was formed at the dawn of our solar system. There is no threat of a collision with our planet now or for centuries to come. “We know the 2001 FO32 orbital path around the Sun very precisely, as 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) in a statement. ), which is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

Still, that distance is close in astronomical terms, which is why 2001 FO32 has been designated a “potentially dangerous asteroid.” CNEOS calculates high-precision orbits for Near Earth Objects (NEOs) in support of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, relying on ground-based telescopes and radars to help accurately characterize the orbit of each NEO to improve long-term hazard assessments.

During this approach, 2001 FO32 will pass 124,000 kilometers per hour, faster than the speed at which most asteroids meet Earth. The reason for the asteroid’s unusually fast approach is its highly inclined and elongated (or eccentric) orbit around the Sun, an orbit that is inclined 39 degrees with respect to the Earth’s orbital plane. This orbit brings the asteroid closer to the Sun than Mercury and twice as far from the Sun as Mars.

As 2001 FO32 makes its journey into the inner solar system, the asteroid picks up speed like a skater rolling down a halfpipe and then slows down after being thrown into deep space and spinning toward the Sun. Complete an orbit every 810 days. After its brief visit, 2001 FO32 will continue its solitary journey and will not come as close to Earth again until 2052, when it will pass some seven lunar distances, 2.8 million kilometers.

At its kilometer in diameter, 2001 FO32 will be the largest asteroid to pass this close to our planet in 2021. The last remarkably large asteroid approach was 1998 OR2 on April 29, 2020. While 2001 FO32 is somewhat smaller than 1998 OR2, it will be three times closer to Earth.

The March 21 meeting will provide a opportunity for astronomers to gain a more accurate understanding of size and the albedo of the asteroid (that is, how bright or reflective its surface is) and a rough idea of ​​its composition.

This will be accomplished, in part, with the use of NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF), a 3.2-meter telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea that will observe the asteroid in the days leading up to approach with its infrared spectrograph. , SpeX. “We’re trying to do geology with a telescope,” said Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

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