An asteroid came so close to Earth that its orbit was forever changed

It was close! An asteroid about the size of a large SUV or larger circled the Earth on Thursday evening, missing us by just over 2,000 miles. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said it was one of the closest flybys of a near-Earth object in human history.

Thursday asteroid past Earth, which NASA says is “one of the closest near-Earth object encounters ever recorded.” The space rock, known as Asteroid 2023 BU, flew over the tip of South America on January 26 at 7:27 am EDT. According to the US space organization, the object passed only 2,200 miles from the Earth’s surface. This distance is 10 times less than the height of geosynchronous satellites, which are about 22,000 miles away.

Astronomers estimate that asteroid 2023 BU is between 3.5 and 8.5 meters wide. Although the flyby was closer than anyone has seen since we started watching these things, NASA says it has never posed a direct threat to Earth. If it were on a head-on course, its size would allow it to expand into a blazing fireball that would basically disintegrate before hitting the ground – a fantastic light show, but not a very dangerous one.

“This little asteroid [have turned] into a fireball and pretty much [disintegrated] harmless in the atmosphere, and some of the larger debris could fall as small meteorites,” NASA said.

The asteroid is a relatively new object, discovered only when approaching it last Saturday, hence the designation BU 2023. It was noticed by Gennady Borisov from the Crimean Observatory, as well as astronomers around the world.

The Scout collision hazard rating system at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) quickly calculated the asteroid’s orbit using limited observatory data. The scout determined that it would miss the Earth, fly around the planet, and fly back into deep space.

“Scout quickly ruled out 2023 BU as an impactor, but despite very few observations, it was nevertheless able to predict that the asteroid would make an extremely close approach to Earth,” said Scout developer and JPL engineer Davide Farnokchia. “In fact, this is one of the closest encounters of a known near-Earth object ever recorded.”

The asteroid passed so close that NASA expects its usual orbit around the Sun to change forever. Prior to close approach, the object’s course around the Sun was approximately circular with a 359-day year. Now its orbit will be elliptical and will move about halfway between the solar paths of Earth and Mars. Due to this shift, the asteroid will now take 425 days to orbit the Sun.

Although asteroid 2023 BU does not pose a real threat, its proximity reminds us that we are not alone in the solar system. Larger objects could potentially end life on Earth in a catastrophic collision.

NASA astrophysicists and scientists are alert and aware of this danger, so the space agency is developing a system to push larger space rocks off their collision course, smashing the spacecraft against them.

Last year, DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) successfully slowed the 160-meter “moon” of a non-threatening asteroid by 32 minutes. The impact was enough to knock large rocks off their collision course with Earth. The space agency said slowing the orbit by more than 73 seconds would be successful.

Head credit: Kevin Gill

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