KEY POINTS

  • NASA spotted a near-Earth object approaching the planet
  • The approaching asteroid has an Earth-intersecting orbit
  • The asteroid is big and fast enough to cause a minor impact event

NASA’s asteroid tracking system has spotted a space rock almost as big as the Statue of Liberty currently headed for Earth. According to the agency’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), the massive asteroid will intersect Earth’s orbit on New Year’s Day.

The approaching asteroid has been identified as 2019 YK. As indicated in CNEOS’ database, this asteroid has an estimated diameter of almost 260 feet. The agency noted that the asteroid is currently flying towards Earth at a speed of about 16,500 miles per hour, making it almost as fast as the orbital speed of NASA’s Space Shuttle.

2019 YK was first observed on Dec. 16. After analyzing the space rock’s trajectory, NASA classified it as an Apollo asteroid. Similar to the other asteroids that have the same classification, 2019 YK follows an oval-shaped orbit within the Solar System.

As it completes its cycle, it passes near other planets such as Mars, Venus and Mercury. Occasionally, 2019 YK’s orbit intersects with that of Earth as the planet travels around the Sun.

According to CNEOS, 2019 YK’s upcoming near-Earth intersection would take place on the morning of New Year’s Day at 2:06 am. During this time, the asteroid is expected to be about 0.03601 astronomical units or roughly 3.3 million miles away.

Earth-crossing asteroids pose a serious threat to the planet due to their natural orbits. Since they are known to intersect Earth’s path, a slight change in their trajectory could send them barreling towards Earth.

This can happen if an approaching asteroid passes through a gravitational keyhole, which refers to a region in space that’s heavily influenced by the gravitational pull of a nearby large cosmic object such as a planet or moon.

Ordinarily, asteroids as big as 2019 YK would burn up and explode in Earth’s atmosphere instead of reaching the ground. However, due to 2019 YK’s current speed, there’s a strong chance that it could penetrate Earth’s atmosphere during a collision between the space rock and the planet.

If this happens, the asteroid could cause a minor impact event on Earth that could destroy a relatively large area as big as a town.

asteroid-break There have been many collisions in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter that have broken asteroids into smaller pieces. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech