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asteroid in space

Huge asteroid hurtles past Earth at 30,000km per hour

Image credit: Dreamstime

Nasa has reported that an asteroid around 2km wide is passing close to the Earth today, giving scientists an opportunity to study it in great detail.

The asteroid, called 1998 OR2, made its closest approach at around 1.30pm today travelling at approximately 30,000km/h. While this is known as a "close approach" by astronomers, it's still very far away in real terms.

The asteroid will get no closer than around 6.3 million kilometres, passing more than 16 times farther away than the Moon. Although the asteroid is classified as a potentially hazardous object (PHO), scientists have said it will not put the planet at risk.

Dr Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, said: “This asteroid poses no danger to the Earth and will not hit – it is one catastrophe we won’t have. While it is big, it is still smaller than the asteroid that impacted the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs.”

Asteroid 1998 OR2 was discovered by the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking program at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in July 1998 and for the past two decades astronomers have been tracking it.

Accordingly, its orbital trajectory is understood very precisely, allowing Nasa to say “with confidence” that it poses no possibility of impact for at least the next 200 years.

Its next close approach to Earth will occur in 2079, when it will pass by much closer - only about four times the lunar distance.

An asteroid is classed as a PHO if it is bigger than 150m and comes within five million miles of Earth’s orbit.

Dr Anne Virkki, head of Planetary Radar at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, who has been tracking the OR2, said understanding more about PHOs will help “improve impact-risk mitigation technologies”.

At present, there are no known PHOs that pose an immediate danger to the Earth. The previous close approach by a large asteroid was made by asteroid Florence in September 2017.

That 5km-wide object zoomed past Earth at 18 lunar distances. On average, asteroids of this size are expected to fly this close to our planet roughly once every five years.

The team, who began observations on April 13, joked that the most recent pictures of the asteroid made it look as though it is wearing a mask.

Dr Virkki said: “The small-scale topographic features such as hills and ridges on one end of asteroid 1998 OR2 are fascinating scientifically. But, since we are all thinking about Covid-19, these features make it look like 1998 OR2 remembered to wear a mask.”

Flaviane Venditti, a research scientist at the observatory, said: “The radar measurements allow us to know more precisely where the asteroid will be in the future, including its future close approaches to Earth.”

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