An asteroid classified as “potentially hazardous” is set to whiz by Earth this week – but scientists are quick to caution that the celestial object does not pose an immediate threat.
Known as 1998 OR2, the 2-kilometer-wide (1.2-mile) asteroid was first discovered in July 1998 and will make its closest approach to Earth on April 29, though it will still be about 16 times farther than the Moon. Researchers note that the asteroid appears to be "wearing a face mask" amid the global novel coronavirus pandemic.
"The small-scale topographic features such as hills and ridges on one end of asteroid 1998 OR2 are fascinating scientifically," said Anne Virkki, head of Planetary Radar at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, in a statement. "But since we are all thinking about COVID-19 these features make it look like 1998 OR2 remembered to wear a mask."
Potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) is an international definition based on characteristics that might make near-Earth asteroids a threat as they approach our planet, according to the NASA Center for Near Earth Object Studies. The classification pulls on measurements known as the minimum orbit intersection distance – those that come within 8 million kilometers (5 million miles) of our planet’s orbit – as well as the absolute magnitude of the celestial object, particularly those that measure larger than 140 meters (about 500 feet).
Engineers and scientists with NASA have put forth official plans for the US government to turn to in the event that an asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. Though the asteroid does not pose an immediate threat, studying its trajectory as it approaches Earth helps experts to improve impact-risk mitigation strategies and determine the trajectories of future PHAs.
"The radar measurements allow us to know more precisely where the asteroid will be in the future, including its future close approaches to Earth," said Flaviane Venditti, a research scientist at the observatory. "In 2079, asteroid 1998 OR2 will pass Earth about 3.5 times closer than it will this year, so it is important to know its orbit precisely."
Scientists have been observing the asteroid since April 13 using optical telescopes to further understand its unique characteristics and how it moves. Data was collected until April 23 when the asteroid was no longer visible from the facility. Among the data, nearly 200 images of the 1998 OR2 captured over the weekend were compiled to create a video of the asteroid moving across the stars.
The Virtual Telescope Project 2.0 is also throwing up a live-stream of the asteroid as it passes by Earth.