LOS ANGELES - The largest asteroid to pass by our planet in 2021 will be at its closest on Sunday, providing astronomers a rare chance to see the giant rock that formed at the dawn of our solar system.
According to a statement by NASA, the near-Earth asteroid, called 2001 FO32, will make its closest approach at a distance of about 1.25 million miles — equivalent to 5 1/4 times the distance from Earth of the moon.
Discovered in 2001, FO32 will pass by at about 77,000 mph, which is faster than the speed at which most asteroids encounter Earth, NASA said.
"The reason for the asteroid’s unusually speedy close approach is its highly inclined and elongated (or eccentric) orbit around the Sun, an orbit that is tilted 39 degrees to Earth’s orbital plane. This orbit takes the asteroid closer to the Sun than Mercury and twice as far from the Sun as Mars," NASA wrote. "As 2001 FO32 makes its inner solar system journey, the asteroid picks up speed like a skateboarder rolling down a halfpipe, and then slows after being flung back out into deep space and swinging back toward the Sun."
Based on recent optical measurements, FO32 is estimated to be roughly 1,300 to 2,230 feet wide, which is on the smaller end of the scale according to NASA. Still, it will be the largest asteroid to pass this close to our planet in 2021.
Thankfully, NASA noted that there is no threat of a collision with our planet now or for centuries to come.
"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 Paul Chodas, director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies, which is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "There is no chance the asteroid will get any closer to Earth than 1.25 million miles."
Still, the asteroid’s distance is close in astronomical terms, which is why 2001 FO32 was labeled a "potentially hazardous asteroid."
But Sunday’s pass-by will be a valuable scientific opportunity for astronomers.
"The March 21 encounter will provide an opportunity for astronomers to get a more precise understanding of the asteroid’s size and albedo (i.e. how bright, or reflective, its surface is), and a rough idea of its composition," NASA wrote.
In addition, astronomers will study the spectrum of light reflecting off the surface to measure the chemical "fingerprints" of the minerals on the surface of the asteroid.
"We’re going to use the IRTF to get the infrared spectrum to see its chemical makeup," Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, said. "Once we know that, we can make comparisons with meteorites on Earth to find out what minerals 2001 FO32 contains."
Despite the asteroid’s close pass by Earth, FO32 will not come this close again until 2052, when it will pass at about 1.75 million miles away.
"Currently little is known about this object, so the very close encounter provides an outstanding opportunity to learn a great deal about this asteroid," Lance Benner, principal scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said