Asteroid 2001 FO32 - the largest near-Earth asteroid predicted to zip by Earth this 2021 - will be making its closest approach on March 21, Sunday.

NASA reports that the "potentially hazardous asteroid," while having no detectable threats of collision with our planet, is expected to provide a "valuable scientific opportunity for astronomers" to study the object believed to have formed at around the same time the Solar System did. According to the space administration, the huge rocky object will not be coming closer than 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) with Earth - a distance that is about 5.25 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon.

Asteriud 2001 FO32 Orbit
(Photo: ExoEditor via Wikimedia Commons)

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Closer and Faster than Most NEOs

According to Paul Chodas, director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), Asteroid 2001 FO32 was first discovered twenty years ago and has been tracked ever since, leading them to understand the orbital path of the asteroid around the sun. CNEOS is also managed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"There is no chance the asteroid will get any closer to Earth than 1.25 million miles," Chodas said.

However, in terms of astronomical objects, NASA noted that a distance of 1.25 million miles is still considered "close," leading to the designation of the Asteroid 2001 FO32 as a "potentially hazardous asteroid." The space administration explains that CNEOS high-precision orbits for near-Earth objects (NEOs) together with NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office under the Science Mission Directorate. Their monitoring of near-Earth objects mainly relies on the use of telescopes and ground-based radar to better characterize every NEO orbit and draw hazard assessments on each of them.

During its Sunday approach, Asteroid 2001 FO32 is expected to go at about 77,00 miles per hour (124,000 kph) - a speed NASA says is faster than most asteroids passing through Earth. They explain that it is because of its "highly inclined and elongated" orbit around the Sun, which is tilted 39 degrees with respect to Earth's own orbital plane. This sped-up trajectory also takes the upcoming asteroid closer to the Sun than Mercury.

"As 2001 FO32 makes its inner solar system journey, the asteroid picks up speed like a skateboarder rolling down a halfpipe," NASA reports. "And then slows after being flung back out into deep space and swinging back toward the Sun." 

Asteroid 2001 FO32

Asteroid 2001 FO32 was first discovered in March 2001 by the LINEAR - Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research - laboratory located in Socorro, New Mexico. It has been estimated to be about 3,000 feet (1km) wide. Additional observations made by the NEOWISE mission - an ongoing effort using a space telescope to hunt for asteroids and comets - show the 2001 FO32 being faint under infrared wavelengths, suggesting it to be less than the initial estimates - about 1,300 to 2,230 feet (440 to 680 meters) wide.

Despite these size estimates, it remains the largest asteroid expected to pass through Earth for the entire 2021. Among the observatories waiting for Asteroid 2001, FO32 will be the Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) - the ten-and-a-half foot telescope sitting a top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.


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