There are only four months left of 2020. Everyone is praying that we will have a peaceful end of the year. What could possibly happen? Will an asteroid hit our planet? Close enough, but fortunately not (yet). However, a space rock flew closely past our planet over the last weekend, entering the record books.
Asteroid 2020 QG, as the scientists named it, set a record on Sunday, Aug. 16 at 12:08 AM EDT (7:08 AM EEST). It passed above the southern Indian Ocean, closer to our home planet than any known Near-Earth Object (NEO). Being the size of an SUV, this asteroid is very small compared to others identified by NASA. However, several times a year, a NEO on impact trajectory becomes a fireball as it enters Earth’s atmosphere.
“It’s really cool to see a small asteroid come by this close, because we can see the Earth’s gravity dramatically bend its trajectory,” commented Paul Chodas, director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Our calculations show that this asteroid got turned by 45 degrees or so as it swung by our planet.”
Being very small, the estimated hundreds of millions of asteroids like 2020 QG aren’t detectable unless they come very close to Earth. The majority of Near-Earth Objects don’t come this close to our planet, usually not even as close as the Moon.
“It’s quite an accomplishment to find these tiny close-in asteroids in the first place, because they pass by so fast,” Chodas mentioned. “There’s typically only a short window of a couple of days before or after close approach when this small of an asteroid is close enough to Earth to be bright enough but not so close that it moves too fast in the sky to be detected by a telescope.”
Asteroid 2020 QG breaks the record as “the closest known non-impacting asteroid”. Many very small asteroids come in contact with the Earth each year, but just a few of them have been actually detected in space hours before impacting our planet.
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