NASA has spotted an asteroid that is currently flying towards Earth. Based on the size of the asteroid, it will most likely explode mid-air and cause a huge fireball if it enters Earth’s atmosphere.

According to the agency’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), the approaching asteroid is called 2019 RP2. As indicated in CNEOS’ database, this asteroid is currently traveling at a speed of 3,500 miles per hour. It has an estimated diameter of 31 feet, making it almost as tall as a standard telephone pole.

As explained by NASA, asteroids that are smaller than around 82 feet have little chance of hitting the ground if they breach Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, these relatively small asteroids will burn up and break apart in the atmosphere before exploding.

Although 2019 RP2 will most likely not reach the surface if it collides with Earth, this does not automatically mean that the asteroid isn’t dangerous. Asteroids that explode in the atmosphere can create huge fireballs in the sky. Depending on the kinetic energy it releases, the resulting explosion can still cause significant damage on the ground.

Probably the most famous incident of a mid-air explosion was the meteor that detonated over a populated area in Russia in 2013. The space rock, which was estimated to be about 66 feet long, exploded shortly after going through Earth’s atmosphere.

The explosion released energy that’s equivalent to about 500 kilotons of TNT, which is around 33 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in World War II. Although much of the explosion was absorbed by the atmosphere, it was still powerful enough to cause significant damage to over 7,000 buildings on the ground. Reports indicated that the event left about 1,500 people injured.

Fortunately, 2019 RP2 is not in danger of hitting Earth or entering its atmosphere during its upcoming approach. According to CNEOS, the asteroid is expected to fly past Earth on Sept. 20 at 8:16 am EDT. During this time, the asteroid will approach Earth from a distance of about 0.02172 astronomical units or roughly 2 million miles away.  

asteroids_passing_earth Over 17,000 near-Earth asteroids remain undetected in our solar neighborhood. Pictured; an artistic illustration of an asteroid flying by Earth. Photo: NASA