Bus-sized asteroid passes Earth closer than some satellites; more on the way in time for Election Day

ST. GEORGE — An asteroid the size of a school bus made a very close flyby near Earth early Thursday morning. And while many internet memes have made jokes about the upcoming election, more objects are actually headed Earth’s way just in time for Election Day.

Thursday’s asteroid, dubbed asteroid 2020 SW, passed within 16,700 of the planet’s surface, which is astronomically closer than the moon’s orbit. According to the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the asteroid is between 14-32 feet across and came about 5,000 miles closer to Earth than any TV or weather satellites, which orbit at 22,300 above the surface of the planet.

Asteroid 2020 SW was discovered last week by the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona. While it may seem unusual to discover a near-earth object just days before its approach, it’s actually not, the agency says. In September alone, more than 240 near-Earth objects have been discovered by the Minor Planet Center.

While the pass by had no effect on Earth, it was a metamorphic event for the asteroid as the planet’s gravity was expected to completely change the space rock’s course as it continued on its journey out of the solar system.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory also says that after Thursday’s cosmic visit, asteroid 2020 SW will not return for more than two decades when it is expected to zoom by the planet in June 2041. (See Ed. note)

While the asteroid was not large enough to see with the naked eye, it was captured by the Virtual Telescope Project 2.0, which also captured a video of the asteroid’s journey.

A video, courtesy of the Virtual Telescope Project 2.0, along with clips and photos courtesy of NASA, can be viewed at the top of this report.

Infographic of Asteroid 2020-SW’s trajectory as it passes by Earth Sept. 24, 2020 | Image courtesy of the Virtual Telescope Project, St. George News

The video was created using a 180-second exposure, remotely taken by “Elena” a Plane Wave, a 17-inch robotic unit that tracked the apparent motion of the asteroid. Then, by placing 130 frames back-to-back, they created the time-lapse video of the space rock.

According to NASA, even if the asteroid was on an impact trajectory with Earth, it would almost certainly break up high in the atmosphere, becoming a bright fireball that would shoot across the sky.

It is not unusual to have asteroids the size of 2020-SW approach the planet, Paul Chodas, director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in a statement Wednesday.

“In fact, asteroids of this size impact our atmosphere at an average rate of about once every year or two,” he added.

Space rocks due to fly by in November 

As the country approaches Election Day 2020, a close encounter with an asteroid may make things even more interesting as Asteroid 2018 VP1 is set to whiz by Earth on Nov. 2.

Luckily, it is not on a collision course with the planet.

Asteroid 2020 SW captured by a telescope in Italy in the early-morning hours of Sept. 24, 2020 | Image courtesy of the Virtual Telescope Project, St. George News

According to Space.com, “There are plenty of threats to democracy; asteroid 2018 VP1 isn’t one of them.”

The space rock is very small. At a little more than 6 feet across, it currently has a 0.41% chance of hitting the planet, and “poses no threat to Earth.” Even if it did, “it would disintegrate due to its extremely small size,” the Planetary Defense Coordination Office wrote on its Twitter outreach arm Asteroid Watch in August.

Since its discovery in 2018 by the Zwicky Transient Facility at Palomar Observatory near San Diego, the flyby will be the asteroid’s maiden voyage past Earth. And while scientists are calling the event a close approach, the flaming rock will actually be very far away from the planet’s surface — more than 260,000 miles, in fact.

That is slightly farther out from Earth than the orbit of the moon, which averages about 238,000 miles from the planet’s surface.

In a strange coincidence, a second asteroid is expected to make a close approach on Election Day, according to NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies.

The larger space rock, dubbed 2020 HF4, is between 4-10 times larger, between 26-60 feet across, but is also flying by at a significantly greater distance: 4 million miles from the surface, or roughly 16-times the distance of the moon.

Interestingly, there are a total of five close encounters with near-Earth objects expected in November, the last of which, 2020 ST-1, will fly by Nov. 14. ST-1 is the largest at between 400-885 feet across — roughly the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is 430 feet high, or about two-thirds the size of the “doomsday asteroid” Apophis, which is estimated to be more than 1,100 feet across.

Apophis: The ‘doomsday asteroid’

Apophis is expected to visit the Earth’s neighborhood in 2029 when it will pass nearly 20,000 miles above the planet’s surface – once again closer than the geostationary satellites hovering above – as it spins and wobbles on its short axis, making a full rotation once every 30 hours or so.

Image of Apophis-99942, discovered in 2004 and expected to make a flyby in 2029 | Photo courtesy of NASA, St. George News

Apophis was named for an ancient Egyptian “lord of chaos” in 2004 when it was discovered. While it is hardly a world-destroying size, Space.com says it is capable of obliterating a city if it struck the planet.

The chance of that is extremely rare, however, according to NASA, which says there is less than a 3% chance of the doomsday rock hitting earth when it makes its next flyby in April 2029.

At its closest approach to Earth on the evening of April 13, Apophis will be over the Atlantic Ocean at 6 p.m. MST and traveling at nearly 83,000 mph. It will move so fast it will cross the Atlantic in just under an hour. And by 7 p.m., it will have made the trip across the United States.

Ed. note: An earlier version of this story listed the return date of 2029 for asteroid 2020 SW.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!