Early on March 21, an asteroid roughly the size of the Golden Gate Bridge will pass Earth at a speed estimated to be 76,980 miles per hour, or 21 miles per second. According to NASA, the asteroid -- known as 2001 FO32 -- is the largest and fastest asteroid that will pass our planet in 2021.
There’s no need to worry, however. While NASA does classify the asteroid as a “Potentially Hazardous Asteroid” because it passes Earth relatively closely, 2001 FO32 will still be 1.3 million miles away from Earth when it passes by.
Comets, which are essentially ice balls with dust particles embedded in them, originally formed in the cold, outer planetary system, the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) explains. On the other hand, asteroids are essentially rocks that formed in the warmer, inner solar system -- in the area bordering the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
When comets and asteroids are influenced by the gravitational pull of planets so they have an orbit “close” to Earth’s, they are called “Near-Earth Objects” (NEOs), CNEOS explains. So far, approximately 25,000 NEOs that come within 30 million miles of Earth’s own orbit around the sun have been identified.
To be considered “Potentially Hazardous,” an NEO must have an orbit that brings it within .65 million miles of Earth -- and the object must also be larger than approximately 500 feet in diameter, CNEOS explains.
“Potentially hazardous” objects “come close enough to Earth’s orbit that it is possible over many centuries and millennia they might evolve into Earth-crossing orbits, so it is prudent to keep tracking these asteroids for decades to come and to study how their orbits might be evolving,” CNEOS Director Paul Chodas told Newsweek.
Asteroid 2001 FO32
Asteroid 2001 FO32 was discovered on March 23, 2001, by scientists at Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research, near Socorro, New Mexico. The asteroid, which has an elliptical orbit, orbits the sun every 810 days -- or 2.22 years.
“Based on its brightness and the way it reflects light, 2001 FO32 is probably between 0.767 to 1.714 kilometers in diameter, making it larger than 97 percent of asteroids,” Space Reference explains. While 2001 FO32 is considered small compared to large asteroids, it is roughly the size of the Golden Gate Bridge.
How You Can See 2011 FO32
Unfortunately, Asteroid 2001 FO32 won’t be visible to the naked eye or with binoculars. In fact, you’ll need a telescope with a diameter of eight inches or larger to see the asteroid, EarthSky points out.
That type of telescope is, admittedly, larger than the ones used by most amateur stargazers. If you do have access to that type of telescope, and you are in the northern hemisphere, the best chance to see 2001 FO32 will be at 4:45 a.m. EST on March 20, according to Space.com.
Look for the asteroid low in the southern sky, just above the horizon. Due to its speed, 2001 FO32 will appear to move at about the speed of an airplane as it passes through the Scorpius and Sagittarius constellations.
One Final Note
Scientists have calculated 2001 FO32’s orbit for the next 200 years. The next time it passes Earth will be in 31 years, on March 22, 2052. However, when 2001 FO32 passes Earth this week, it will be the closest the asteroid comes to Earth for the next 200 years.