Earlier this month, millions of Americans were treated to a rare spectacle: a total solar eclipse that was visible from coast-to-coast. While Florence, a massive asteroid that will zip past our planet on September 1, will not overshadow the stunning event, it will make history of its own. According to Paul Chodas at the Center for Near Earth Object (NEO) Studies, the space rock is the largest to pass this close to our planet since the first near-Earth asteroid was discovered over a century ago.
Though many small NEOs enter our atmosphere harmlessly on a regular basis, the average size of comets or asteroids whose orbits have come into proximity with Earth is about 460 feet (140 meters) In comparison, the Spitzer Space Telescope estimates Florence is an impressive 2.7 miles (4,345 meters) across, or about a third of the size of the asteroid believed to have caused dinosaurs to become extinct.
Luckily, according to NASA experts, the closest Florence will get is about 4.4 million miles, or approximately 18 times the distance between the Earth and the moon. While that is far enough to rule out a possible collision, it is close enough to view with binoculars and telescopes from late August to early September. More importantly, Florence’s proximity will give scientists the rare opportunity to observe the asteroid in detail. Studying this largely unaltered rock debris, from when the solar system was created about 4.6 billion years ago, will give researchers some insights into the formation process of Earth and other planets.
Discovered in March 1981 by American astronomer Schelte “Bobby” Bus at Australia’s Siding Spring Observatory, Florence was named after Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. The asteroid hasn’t been this close to Earth since 1890, and won’t approach us again until 2500.
Though most NEO’s aren’t nearly as large as the visiting behemoth, they’re not a rare occurrence. In 2016, more than 15,000 asteroids were classified as near-earth objects, and about 1,500 previously unknown ones are discovered each year. Though this might sound concerning, even those that get significantly close to our planet don’t necessarily pose a risk. In March of this year, an asteroid the size of a bus caught experts by complete surprise when it soared within 202,000 miles of Earth — nearer than the distance between the Earth and the moon. Fortunately, it had no intention of landing on our planet.
Resources: NASA.gov, gizmodo.com, space.com, wikipedia.org