Asteroid ‘Bigger Than Leaning Tower Of Pisa’ Set To Fly By Earth Next Week
No, it’s not Santa making an early visit, it’s an asteroid bigger than the Leaning Tower of Pisa that’s going fly past the Earth just a few days before Christmas.
The Centre for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) – NASA’s asteroid monitoring system – scours our Solar System for objects with trajectories that could carry them within striking distance, relatively speaking, of our planet. CNEOS recently confirmed that it has identified an asteroid named 2017 XQ60, which is expected to cross paths with Earth on December 21. It’s not the first time 2017 XQ60 has made a visit to our skies: as you might be able to tell by the name, the asteroid was first identified in 2017, with this coming Monday marking a year to the day since it last flew by.
According to CNEOS’s database, this asteroid is currently hurtling in our direction at a pretty impressive speed of 33,554 miles per hour (or 15 km/second). At about 56.4 metres tall and between 35 and 78 meters in diameter, the asteroid is bigger than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or longer than the wingspan of a Boeing 747 airplane. In the wider context of space, that’s still a very small asteroid, but it’s expected to be the biggest visitor we’ve had in a while.
2017 XQ6o is an unusual asteroid for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s an Apollo asteroid, which means that it follows an extra wide orbit around our Solar System that intersects with our Earth’s orbital path. It’s also among a number of asteroids – known as Atens – known to have orbits that bring them in especially close proximity to Earth. Officially, of the hundreds of thousands of asteroids that fly past us each year, Aten asteroids are the most likely to actually collide with Earth, although NASA has confirmed that 2017 XQ60 doesn’t pose a danger to our planet.
Although it was only discovered three years ago, based on CNEOS’s observations, stargazers can make a regular appointment with 2017 XQ60, with the rock expected to make a fly-by on a near-annual basis. Last year, the asteroid blasted past at a safe distance of 2.6 million miles from the Earth’s centre, and is expected to get further away each time it visits. By its 2037 visit, XQ60 will have put 46 million miles between itself and us, so amateur astronomers should make the most of this relatively close encounter while they can.
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