KEY POINTS

  • NASA detected an asteroid approaching on New Year's Eve
  • The approaching asteroid follows an Earth-crossing orbit
  • The asteroid is big enough to cause a powerful explosion in the atmosphere

NASA is currently monitoring an asteroid that’s expected to approach Earth tomorrow. If it ends up hitting the planet, the asteroid could cause a violent explosion in the sky.

The agency’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) has identified the approaching asteroid as 2019 WR4. As indicated in the agency’s database, the asteroid is not moving very fast compared to the other space rocks that have approached the planet. According to CNEOS, the asteroid is currently flying towards Earth at a velocity of almost 9,500 miles per hour.

CNEOS estimated that 2019 WR4 has a diameter of around 115 feet, making it almost as long as three standard city busses.

2019 WR4 belongs to a family of asteroids known as Apollos. This means that like other Apollo asteroids, 2019 WR4 travels around various planets within the Solar System. From time to time, the asteroid’s orbit intersects with that of Earth as it goes around the Sun.

These near-Earth intersections can be very dangerous since they could cause a collision between the planet and the asteroid someday. But, given the asteroid’s size and current speed, it won’t cause an impact event on Earth if these two objects collide.

Instead of hitting the ground, the asteroid will most likely burn up in the atmosphere and create a huge flash and explosion. Unfortunately, even though the asteroid won’t strike the ground, this doesn’t mean the asteroid is completely harmless.

As previous incidents have proven, such as the Tunguska and the Chelyabinsk events, airburst caused by asteroids can be very destructive. Given 2019 WR4’s estimated diameter, the energy that would be released from this asteroid’s mid-air explosion could be equivalent to over 40 to 50 atomic bombs.

Although much of the energy from the explosion would dissipate in the atmosphere, the remaining percentage that would hit Earth could still be powerful enough to damage thousands of buildings within a large area.

Fortunately, CNEOS noted that 2019 WR4 is not in danger of causing a mid-air explosion on its next approach. According to the agency, the asteroid will be approaching Earth from a very safe distance of 0.03003 astronomical units or roughly 2.8 million miles away. This will occur on Dec. 31 at 12:06 a.m. EST.