Asteroid 231937 (2001 FO32) will shoot by Earth on March 21. At about one kilometre wide, the asteroid will be the largest to come close to Earth this year when it swings by at about 7.5 million kilometres from Earth. And as the asteroid makes its close approach, the Virtual Telescope Project, based in Italy, has already managed to photograph the space rock.
The image of 2001 FO32 was taken when the space rock was 19.5 million kilometres from Earth.
In the image, one can see the rock reflecting sunlight so it appears as a bright object in the night’s sky against a backdrop of stars.
The Virtual Telescope Project said: “The potentially hazardous asteroid (231937) 2001 FO32 is safely approaching us and, while waiting for its fly-by on March 21, we captured it last night [March 14].
“The image comes from a single 180-second exposure, remotely taken with the ‘Elena’ (PlaneWave 17″+Paramount ME+SBIG STL-6303E) robotic unit available at Virtual Telescope.
“2001 FO32 was extremely low on the Southern horizon (13.5 deg.), so the observing conditions were far from being ideal: despite this, the asteroid is well visible.
“This 770 to 1,700-metre large asteroid will reach its minimum distance (about 7.5 million km) from us on March 21, 2021, at 16:03 UTC.
“Of course, there are no risks at all for our planet.”
While there are no risks this time around, NASA cannot rule out an impact at some point in the future – although not for the next few centuries at least.
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“Scientists believe stray asteroids or fragments from earlier collisions have slammed into Earth in the past, playing a major role in the evolution of our planet.”
Something known as the Yarkovsky effect can cause an asteroid to alter its course.
The Yarkovsky effect happens when a space rock is heated in direct sunlight and cools down to release radiation from its surface.
Ultimately, this can lead to slight changes in the orbit of an asteroid – smaller than 40 kilometres – which can have consequences over millions of years.
Harvard University said: “The Yarkovsky effect describes a small but significant force that affects the orbital motion of meteoroids and asteroids smaller than 30 tp 40km in diameter.
“It is caused by sunlight; when these bodies heat up in the Sun, they eventually reradiate the energy away in the thermal waveband, which in turn creates a tiny thrust.
“This recoil acceleration is much weaker than solar and planetary gravitational forces, but it can produce measurable orbital changes over decades and substantial orbital effects over millions to billions of years.”