spaceSpace and Physics

An Asteroid Is Going To Swing Past Earth On December 16


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

Phaethon might be breaking apart, like this artist's impression. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Look alive, people. An asteroid is about to make a pretty close approach to Earth – but don't worry, there's essentially no chance it will hit us.

The asteroid is called 3200 Phaethon, named after the Greek mythological son of Helios, the Son god. The bad news is that, in Greek mythology, Phaethon nearly set Earth on fire and had to be destroyed. Eek.


The good news is that this asteroid probably won't deal us a repeat performance when it swings past our planet on December 16. But it will provide us with an exciting opportunity to study this rock as it tears through space.

"This will be the best opportunity to date for radar observations of this asteroid and we hope to obtain detailed images," said NASA.

"The images should be excellent for obtaining a detailed 3D model."

Phaethon (the asteroid) is thought to be about 5 kilometers (3 miles) across, making it the third largest near-Earth potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA). It was discovered in 1983 by NASA, with its last close approach coming in 2007.


This time around the asteroid will pass within 10 million kilometers (6.2 million miles) of our planet. That's kinda close, about 27 times further than the Moon, but nowhere near enough to be a cause for alarm. It is, however, closer than it came in 2007.

"The 2017 apparition is the closest to Earth since the asteroid's discovery so it may be possible for optical observers to detect new activity," said NASA.

Interestingly, Phaethon is thought to be responsible for the annual Geminids meteor shower on December 13 and 14, due to similarities between its orbit and the meteors.

But meteor storms are usually caused by comets, which have tails of debris trailing behind them that burn up in our atmosphere. Asteroids are not supposed to have these, so it's possible Phaethon is either breaking apart, or it's not an asteroid at all – and is, in fact, a dead comet.


So this close pass to Earth is going to be pretty exciting. There are a number of closer approaches in the next few centuries though (the next is 2050), with the closest coming on December 14, 2093. Phaethon will pass within 3 million kilometers (1.9 million miles) of our planet then. We should be fine, though.


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