Astronomers tracked the asteroid’s flyby in the early morning hours of Friday, January 17. Astrophysicist Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project in Italy photographed the space rock as it made its “close approach”.
The asteroid, known as 2020 AN3, belongs to a family of asteroids that could one day strike the planet.
Although there is no immediate threat to Earth’s safety, the gravitational tug of the planets in the solar system could shift asteroids’ orbits enough to cross paths with Earth.
According to the US space agency NASA, potentially hazardous rocks can come “unusually close” to Earth.
On Friday, Asteroid AN3 approached Earth close enough to be seen but not close enough to pose any real danger.
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When Dr Masi photographed the asteroid, AN3 was approximately 1.9 million miles (3.1 million km) from Earth.
The space rock is estimated to measure somewhere in the range of 754.6ft 1,673ft (230m to 510m) across, making it a potentially cataclysmic threat.
The asteroid’s approach was also tracked by NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies or CNEOS.
The asteroid also features on the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Risk List – a catalogue of space rocks with a greater-than-zero chance of hitting Earth.
Dr Masi said: “At the imaging time, 2020 AN3 was at about 3.1 millions of km from the Earth and it was on its way approaching us.
“Potentially Hazardous Asteroid 2020 AN3 was discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona a couple of nights ago: well done, guys.
Of course, there were no risks at all for our planet
Gianluca Masi, Virtual Telescope Project
“This 230 to 510m large asteroid reached its minimum distance – 3 millions of km – from us on January 17, 2020, at 1.35am UTC.
“Of course, there were no risks at all for our planet.”
Despite its close approach, the asteroid in Dr Masi’s picture is no bigger than a grain of sand.
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You can just see a speck of white against a backdrop of streaky star trails.
The image is the result of a single 180 second exposure taken by the robotic telescope Elena.
Dr Masi said: “The telescope tracked the apparent motion of the asteroid, this is why stars show as long trail, while the asteroid looks like a sharp dot of light in the centre image, marked by an arrow.”
Near-Earth objects or NEOs like AN3 frequently zip past our homeworld as they race around the Sun.
As of January 20, the Minor Planet Center lists 21,912 NEO discoveries.
This year alone, 88 new NEOs have been spotted and last year astronomers found 2,436 of the space rocks.
In it’s January NEO newsletter, ESA said: “As it had been anticipated already last month, 2019 has been a record-breaking year in NEA discoveries, with an increase of nearly 30 percent with respect to 2018.”
According to ESA, there are 21,655 known near-Earth asteroid and 109 near-Earth comets.
The space agency also counted 2,370 NEO discoveries since January 1, 2019.
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