asteroid 2020 SW

This illustration shows a near-Earth asteroid like asteroid 2020 SW traveling through space. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The biggest asteroid to visit Earth zipped past our planet today

The 2001 FO32 asteroid is believed to be between 440 to 680 metres wide.

asteroid 2020 SW

This illustration shows a near-Earth asteroid like asteroid 2020 SW traveling through space. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

SpaceX has been all over our newsfeeds with it’s efforts to send spacecraft into space. However, Earth will be getting a flyby from a celestial body today when the biggest asteroid yet in 2021 speeds past us today.

The asteroid named 2001 F032 is has been on our radar for some time now. 2001 F032 was actually first spotted in 2001, 20 years ago.

The asteroid has been tracked for the last 20 years, so this visit to our corner of the solar system thankfully is not a surprise, unlike 2021 FH1, a new asteroid first observed 19 March 2021, which is also making it’s way past Earth today.

Paul Chodas, director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) overseen by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, explains:

“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. There is no chance the asteroid will get any closer to Earth than 1.25 million miles.”

Asteroids buzzing past the Earth are a fairly regular occurrence; however, what makes 2001 F032 unique is how fast this asteroid is hurtling through space.

The asteroid 2001 F032 will pass by Earth, travelling at around 124 000 Km/h. For context, that would mean it’s travelling 34km in a second and would travel from Cape Town to Johannesburg in well under a minute.

“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,” NASA officials wrote in a statement.

“This orbit takes the asteroid closer to the sun than Mercury and twice as far from the sun as Mars.”

The asteroid picks up speed as it “falls” toward the sun and then slows as it moves out in the direction of Mars. The asteroid is technically classified as a “potentially dangerous asteroid” by the folks at NASA.

Still, there is definitely no imminent risk with the asteroid’s orbit likely to remain of little concern other than sightseeing for some centuries to come.

According to NASA’s NEOWISE space telescope, the asteroid is believed to be between 440m to 680m wide. NASA officials wrote:

“Even if it is at the smaller end of the scale, 2001 FO32 will still be the largest asteroid to pass this close to our planet in 2021”.

“The last notably large asteroid close approach was that of 1998 OR2 on 29 April 2020. While 2001 FO32 is somewhat smaller than 1998 OR2, it will be three times nearer to Earth.”

The good news for amateur astronomers is that the best chance of viewing the asteroid will be in the southern hemisphere. “The asteroid will be brightest while it moves through southern skies,” Chodas said.

“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.”