NASA discovers asteroid is a dead ringer for the Empire State Building

NASA discovers asteroid is a dead ringer for the Empire State Building

Imagine this hurtling through space: scientists have found an asteroid the size of the Empire State Building.

This asteroid, which recently sped past Earth, has caught the attention of NASA astronomers for its long, strange shape. The space rock – which may have moved to set the record straight that not all asteroids are slightly ball-like – is more than three times longer than it is wide.

To understand its scale, scientists have estimated the rock to be about 1,600 by 500 feet, roughly comparable to that of the world-famous monument that looms over 100 stories above New York.

“Of the 1,040 near-Earth objects observed by planetary radars to date, this is one of the most elongated we’ve seen,” Lance Benner, principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement (Opens in a tab new) .

SEE ALSO: A Webb Telescope error just led to a surprising discovery Tweet may have been deleted (Opens in a new tab) (Opens in a new tab)

The asteroid, known as 2011 AG5, passed by Earth at a safe distance of 1.1 million miles on February 3, according to the US space agency. But the approach gave astronomers their first crack at studying its size, rotation, surface and silhouette in detail since the object was discovered 12 years ago.

“This is one of the longest [asteroids] we have seen.”

The image above is a collage of six pictures taken of the tall object by the Goldstone (Opens in a new tab) solar system antenna in California. There was no sign that King Kong was clinging to the towering rock, but astronomers made a few other observations: It’s a dark charcoal color, appears to be tipped to one side, and slowly rotates every nine hours.

The asteroid takes about twice as long to orbit the Sun as Earth, and won’t make a close flyby until 2040, when it could come within 670,000 miles, according to NASA. That’s close in cosmos terms—space, after all, is a big place—but it’s still three times farther than the Moon is from Earth.

A 2012 plot of asteroid 2011 AG5, showing it traveling beyond the orbit of Mars and as close to the sun as halfway between Earth and Venus. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / NEOPO

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Millions of space rocks orbit the sun. They are the rocky debris left over from the formation of the solar system some 4.6 billion years ago. Most of these ancient remains are too far away to pose a threat to this planet. Most are in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but occasionally rocks enter the inner solar system, relatively closer to Earth.

There are no known asteroids on a collision course with Earth. However, scientists are keeping a close eye on the 30,000 large objects (Opens in a new tab) out there and estimate there may be 15,000 or more waiting to be discovered. Using powerful telescopes to scan the sky, astronomers are finding about 500 new sizable space rocks in the neighborhood of Earth’s solar system each year.

“An asteroid impact is an extremely rare event,” Lindley Johnson, planetary protection officer for NASA, said last year. “Maybe once a century there’s an asteroid that we would really worry about and want to avoid.”

“Maybe once a century there’s an asteroid that we would really worry about and want to avoid.” Tweet may have been deleted (opens in a new tab) (opens in a new tab)

But even the smallest stones can cause great destruction. According to NASA, an asteroid impact of about 100 to 170 feet could destroy a small town (Opens in a new tab). Ten years ago this week, on February 15, 2013, an undetected meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia (Opens in a new tab), causing a disaster that affected six cities and injured 1,600 people. The cliff was only 60 meters wide.

Nations are developing warning systems and defense strategies in case an asteroid or comet ever enters an orbit that could endanger civilization. As a test, NASA launched a spacecraft in November 2022, known as the DART mission, to deliberately crash into a harmless asteroid in deep space in an attempt to shift its trajectory. The $330 million exercise was a success, proving that NASA is capable of intercepting a potentially dangerous space rock in the future.

Shortly after 2011 AG5 was discovered, some people were concerned (Opens in a new tab) it could be a danger to the planet decades into the future. Armed with little information about its orbit at the time, scientists could not make accurate estimates of its location to put people’s minds at ease.

Paul Chodas, director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (Opens in a new tab) at the lab, said the asteroid “became a poster child” when early observations showed there was little chance of a future impact on Earth.

“Continuous observations of this object ruled out any chance of impact,” he said in a statement. (Opens in a new tab) “And these new range measurements from the planetary radar team will further refine exactly where it will be in the future. .”

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