KEY POINTS

  • An asteroid will intersect Earth's orbit this month
  • The asteroid will approach Earth from a close distance
  • The approaching asteroid is capable of causing a powerful mid-air explosion

NASA warned that an asteroid capable of causing a violent airburst in the sky would approach Earth this month. According to the agency, the asteroid will fly past Earth from a dangerously close distance.

NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) identified the approaching asteroid as 2020 DP4. As indicated in CNEOS, database, this asteroid measures about 184 feet wide, which makes it about as tall as the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy. This asteroid is currently approaching Earth at a speed of over 18,000 miles per hour.

According to CNEOS, 2020 DP4 is expected to intersect Earth’s orbit on March 22 at 1:49 p.m. EST. During this time, the asteroid will fly past Earth from a distance of only 0.00901 astronomical units, which is about 838,000 miles from the planet’s center.

Although this may seem like a safe distance, an asteroid flying this close to Earth can still be dangerous for the planet. For one, the asteroid could get affected by a gravitational keyhole. Gravitational keyholes are regions in space that are greatly affected by the gravitational pull of massive cosmic objects such as planets.

If 2020 DP4 passes by a gravitational keyhole as it travels across the Solar System, its trajectory could change. This means it could end up on a direct collision course with the planet.

If the asteroid ends up hitting Earth, it most likely won’t cause an impact event on the planet. Instead of hitting the ground, it will burn up and explode in the atmosphere, just like what happened to the asteroid that hit Earth and detonated over Russia in 2013.

During that incident, an asteroid about 66 feet long exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. The blast from its explosion was equivalent to about 30 atomic bombs. Although the explosion happened in the sky, it was still powerful enough to damage thousands of buildings on the ground.

If 2020 DP4 causes a similar airburst on Earth, the blast would be more powerful since it’s significantly larger than the asteroid that exploded over Chelyabinsk.