An asteroid more than a mile wide is set to make a pass by Earth on Wednesday, although scientists insist it poses no danger.
Known as (52768) 1998 OR2, the asteroid will come to about 6.3 million kilometres away – 16 times further than the distance to the moon – when it makes its closest approach.
The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has been tracking the 1.9km-wide space rock as it edges nearer, after Nasa first spotted it in 1998. Scientists have joked that the latest image of the asteroid look like it is wearing a mask due to dust and debris passing around it.
“The small-scale topographic features such as hills and ridges on one end of asteroid 1998 OR2 are fascinating scientifically,” said Anne Virkki, head of Planetary Radar at the observatory. “But since we are all thinking about Covid-19, these features make it look like 1998 OR2 remembered to wear a mask.”
The asteroid is classed as a PHO (potentially hazardous object) because it is bigger than 140m and will come within eight million kilometres of Earth’s orbit, but no known PHO poses an immediate danger to the planet. Nevertheless, scientists continue to keep an eye on the asteroid to see how it will move beyond 2020.
“The radar measurements allow us to know more precisely where the asteroid will be in the future, including its future close approaches to Earth,” explained Flaviane Venditti, a research scientist at the observatory. “In 2079, asteroid 1998 OR2 will pass Earth about 3.5 times closer than it will this year, so it is important to know its orbit precisely.”
The team started observations on 13 April and will continue to collect data until 23 April, when the asteroid will no longer be visible from the facility.
“Although this asteroid is not projected to impact Earth, it is important to understand the characteristics of these types of objects to improve impact-risk mitigation technologies,” Virkki added.