On March 5th, a 100 foot long asteroid will make its closest approach to Earth passing at a distance of between 14 million km (9 million miles) and 17,000 km (11,000 miles).
The wide variations in the estimated trajectory of the asteroid had caused some anxiety about a slight chance of an impact, however NASA officials have since officially confirmed the asteroid will not threaten Earth.
The relatively small asteroid, known as 2013 TX68, was discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey on October 6th, 2013. Because NASA scientists had only about 2 years to track the asteroid, its actual orbital path is not completely understood, which is why there is a large variation in its estimated distance.
For perspective, it’s possible that the asteroid will zip by much closer to Earth than the Moon ever gets. The Earth’s Moon lies at an average distance of 384,399 km (238,854 miles) from Earth, and scientists estimate the asteroid could get as close as 17,000 km (11,000 miles).
Even if the asteroid were to strike Earth, this one is too small to cause any significant damage. Measuring about 30 meters or 100 feet, it’s only slightly larger than the Chelyabinsk asteroid that broke up over Russia in 2013. Moreover, since this asteroid is being actively tracked by NASA’s Near Earth Object Program (NEOP), there would likely be a warning and time to prepare, unlike the Chelyabinsk case where there was no warning.
Subsequently, we should remind ourselves that Near Earth Objects (NEOs) pass by Earth safely all the time. In 2016 alone, scientists have already tracked 10 NEO’s passing close by Earth and they expect another 80 to pass by during the year.
The next close encounter with 2013 TX68 will be around September 28th, 2017 and scientists say there is an extremely remote possibility that the asteroid could impact Earth – about a 1-in-250 million odds. The picture will become more clear as astronomers continue to map its trajectory as it passes Earth, with the hopes of more concretely identifying its orbital characteristics as soon as possible.
Paul Chodas, who’s a NASA scientist at the Center for NEO Studies said, “The possibilities of a collision on any of the three future flyby dates are far too small to be of any real concern. I fully expect any future observations to reduce the probability even more. This asteroid’s orbit is quite uncertain, and it will be hard to predict where to look for it. There is a chance that the asteroid will be picked up by our asteroid search telescopes when it safely flies past us next month, providing us with data to more precisely define its orbit around the sun.”
If you’re still feeling anxious, be sure to to check out NASA’s Asteroid Watch on Twitter for news and updates on NEOs.