An Asteroid Will Journey Past Earth This Weekend

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An asteroid is set to zip past Earth this weekend. Although 2020 might be a year full of unexpected surprises, you can ignore the doom-mongering tabloid headline as the asteroid will peacefully pass our planet at a safe distance. 

The asteroid, known as 163348 (2002 NN4) or just 2002 NN4 for short, will make a close approach to Earth on Saturday night/Sunday morning at 03:20 UTC (23:20 Eastern US time). The fleeting visitor will pass our planet at a distance of 5,093,634 kilometers (3,165,037 miles), around 13 times the distance of the Moon from Earth, according to NASA Asteroid Watch

While this is a relatively far distance, it’s close enough to be defined as a “Potentially Hazardous Asteroid" by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. This is a term used to describe asteroids that are larger than 140 meters (460 feet) in size and pass within 7.5 million kilometers (4.7 million miles) of Earth. However, the asteroid is nothing to worry about. Many tabloid news outlets have branded 2002 NN4 as a "potentially catastrophic" asteroid that is "heading towards Earth.” Rest assured, Earth will be safe and sound from this passing visitor.

The orbital paths of 2002 NN4 (seen in silvery white) and Earth (seen in light blue). NASA/JPL

The flying space rock is between 0.2 to 0.5 kilometers (0.2 to 0.35 miles) in diameter, approximately the size of a football stadium, and will zoom past our planet at an eye-watering 11.1 kilometers (6.9 miles) per second. Scientists work out the size of asteroids by looking at its brightness. After accounting for the asteroid’s distance and its surface reflectivity, which can be determined by a number of factors such as shape and chemical composition, the amount of light it reflects can be used to gauge its size. 

Asteroids are rocky objects that orbit around the Sun much like planets. Unlike planets, however, they are notably smaller. Our Solar System is filled with many asteroids, although most can be found in the main asteroid belt that's roughly between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter. 2002 NN4 is referred to as an Aten asteroid because it will spend most of its orbit closer to the Sun than the Earth. 

2002 NN4 orbits the Sun every 299.6 days and will make its next close approach on June 7, 2029 when it passes Earth at a distance of 8,805,448 kilometers (5,471,451 miles). 

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