The biggest asteroid anticipated to pass by our planet in 2021 will be at its nearest on March 21, giving astronomers an uncommon chance to get a decent look at a rocky relic that formed at the dawn of our solar system.
The interplanetary interloper will not come nearer than 1.25 million miles to Earth, however, it will introduce a significant scientific chance for cosmologists.
Called 2001 FO32, the near-Earth asteroid will make its nearest approach at a distance of about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) – or 5 1/4 times the distance from Earth to the Moon. 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 (CNEOS), 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.”
In any case, that distance is close in astronomical terms, which is the reason 2001 FO32 has been assigned a “potentially hazardous asteroid.” CNEOS processes high-precision orbits for near-Earth objects (NEOs) on the side of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, depending on telescopes and ground-based radar to help precisely characterize every NEO’s orbit to improve long-term hazard assessments.
During this methodology, 2001 FO32 will pass by at around 77,000 mph (124,000 kph) – faster than the speed at which most asteroids experience Earth. The explanation behind the asteroid’s surprisingly rapid close methodology is its highly inclined and extended (or eccentric) orbit around the Sun, an orbit that is shifted 39 degrees to Earth’s orbital plane. This orbit takes the asteroid nearer to the Sun than Mercury and twice as a long way from the Sun as Mars.
As 2001 FO32 makes its inner solar system journey, the asteroid gets a speed like a skateboarder moving down a halfpipe, and afterward eases back after being flung back out into deep space and swinging back toward the Sun. It finishes one orbit every 810 days (around 2 1/4 years).
After its short visit, 2001 FO32 will proceed with its lonely journey, not coming to this near-Earth again until 2052, when it will pass by at around seven lunar distances, or 1.75 million miles (2.8 million kilometers).
Asteroid 2001 FO32 was found in March 2001 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program in Socorro, New Mexico, and had been assessed, in light of optical measurements, to be around 3,000 feet (1 kilometer) wide.
In more recent follow-up observations by NEOWISE, 2001 FO32 seems, by all accounts, to be weak when seen in infrared wavelengths, which proposes the object is likely under 1 kilometer in diameter. An investigation by the NEOWISE team shows that it is between 1,300 to 2,230 feet (440 to 680 meters) wide.
Regardless of whether it is at the smaller end of the scale, 2001 FO32 will in any case be the biggest asteroid to pass this near our planet in 2021. The last notably large asteroid close methodology was that of 1998 OR2 on April 29, 2020. While 2001 FO32 is somewhat smaller than 1998 OR2, it will be three times closer to Earth.
The March 21 experience will give a chance to astronomers to get a more precise comprehension of the asteroid’s size and albedo (for example how bright, or reflective, its surface is), and a harsh thought of its composition.
This will be accomplished, to some degree, with the utilization of NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF), a 3.2-meter (10.5-foot) telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea that will observe the asteroid in the days leading up to close approach utilizing its workhorse infrared spectrograph, SpeX.
“We’re trying to do geology with a telescope,” said Vishnu Reddy, associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson.
At the point when sunlight hits an asteroid’s surface, minerals in the rock absorb a few wavelengths while reflecting others. By examining the spectrum of light reflecting off the surface, astronomers can 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,” Reddy clarified. “Once we know that, we can make comparisons with meteorites on Earth to find out what minerals 2001 FO32 contains.”
For example, should 2001 FO32 be recognized as iron-rich, that would mean it’s denser and along these lines more monstrous than a stony asteroid of comparable size; perceptions showing a surface with low albedo (implying that it’s dark) may demonstrate the asteroid contains a great deal of carbon, proposing it very well may be the nucleus of a long-dead comet.
A Closer Look
Likewise, radar observations by the Deep Space Network (DSN) might be carried out to get a detailed perspective on the asteroid. An operation of NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation program (SCaN), the DSN contains three ground stations – one in California (Goldstone), one in Spain (Madrid), and one in Australia (Canberra).
Their dish antennas can be utilized to bounce radio signals off 2001 FO32 with the goal that other radio antennas can get them. Such radar observations can offer extra knowledge into the asteroid’s orbit, give a superior estimate of its dimensions and rotation rate, and help glimpse surface features (like huge boulders or craters). They could even uncover any small satellites that might be close by.
“Observations dating back 20 years revealed that about 15% of near-Earth asteroids comparable in size to 2001 FO32 have a small moon,” said Lance Benner, principal scientist at JPL. “Currently little is known about this object, so the very close encounter provides an outstanding opportunity to learn a great deal about this asteroid.”
More than 95% of near-Earth asteroids the size of 2001 FO32 or bigger have been found, tracked, and cataloged. None of the enormous asteroids in the catalog gets any opportunity of affecting Earth over the next century, and it is amazingly improbable that any of the excess undiscovered asteroids of this size could affect Earth, either.
All things considered, endeavors keep on finding all asteroids that could represent an effect risk. The more data that can be assembled about these objects, the better mission designers can plan to deflect them if any were to threaten Earth later on.
Then, amateur astronomers can assemble data of their own around 2001 FO32. “The asteroid will be brightest while it moves through southern skies,” said JPL’s Chodas. “Amateur astronomers in the southern hemisphere and at low northern latitudes should be able to see this asteroid using moderate size telescopes with apertures of at least 8 inches in the nights leading up to closest approach, but they will probably need star charts to find it.”
JPL has CNEOS for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program in NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The University of Hawaii oversees IRTF under agreement with NASA. The SpeX instrument was worked at the University of Hawaii.