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Asteroid to pass Earth closer than some satellites

Jan 27, 2023

You definitely shouldn't panic but there is a biggish asteroid about to pass by Earth.

About the size of a minibus, the space rock, known as 2023 BU, will whip over the southern tip of South America.

With a closest expected approach of 3600km, it counts as a close shave.

It illustrates how there are still asteroids of significant size lurking near Earth that remain to be detected.

This one was only picked up last weekend by amateur astronomer Gennadiy Borisov, who operates from Nauchnyi in Crimea, the peninsula Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Follow up observations have refined what we know about 2023 BU's size and, crucially, its orbit.

That's how astronomers can be so confident it will miss the planet, even though it will come inside the arc occupied by the world's telecommunications satellites, which sit 36,000km (22,000 miles) above us.

The chances of hitting a satellite are very, very small.

The time of lowest altitude is calculated to be 1.27pm NZT on Friday (00:27 GMT).

Even if 2023 BU was on a direct collision course it would struggle to do much damage.

With an estimated size of 3.5m to 8.5m across, the rock would be likely to disintegrate high in the atmosphere. It would, though, produce a spectacular fireball.

For comparison, the famous Chelyabinsk meteor that entered Earth's atmosphere over southern Russia in 2013 was an object near 20m across. It produced a shockwave that shattered windows on the ground.

Scientists at the US space agency NASA say 2023 BU's orbit around the Sun will be modified by its encounter with Earth.

Our planet's gravity will pull on it and adjust its path through space.

"Before encountering Earth, the asteroid's orbit around the Sun was roughly circular, approximating Earth's orbit, taking 359 days to complete its orbit about the Sun," the agency said in a statement.

"After its encounter, the asteroid's orbit will be more elongated, moving it out to about halfway between Earth's and Mars' orbits at its farthest point from the Sun. The asteroid will then complete one orbit every 425 days."

There is a great effort under way to find the much larger asteroids that really could do damage if they were to strike the Earth.

The true monsters out there, like the 12km-wide rock that wiped out the dinosaurs, have likely all been detected and are not a cause for worry. But come down in size to something that is, say, 150m across and our inventory has gaps.

Statistics indicate perhaps only about 40 percent of these asteroids have been seen and assessed to determine the level of threat they might pose.

Such objects would inflict devastation on the city scale if they were to hit the ground.

"There are still asteroids that cross the Earth's orbit waiting to be discovered," Prof Don Pollacco from the University of Warwick, UK, told BBC News. "2023 BU is a recently discovered object, supposedly the size of a small bus, which must have passed by the Earth thousands of times before. This time it passes by only 2200 miles from the Earth - just 1 percent of the distance to the moon - a celestial near miss.

"Depending on what 2023 BU is composed of it is unlikely to ever reach the Earth's surface but instead burn up in the atmosphere as a brilliant fireball - brighter than a full moon.

"However, there are likely many asteroids out there that remain undiscovered that could penetrate the atmosphere and hit the surface to cause significant damage - indeed many scientists think we could be due such an event."

Main image (NASA/JPL-Caltech): This orbital diagram from CNEOS’s close approach viewer shows 2023 BU’s trajectory – in red – during its close approach with Earth. The asteroid will pass about 10 times closer to Earth than the orbit of geosynchronous satellites, shown in green line.



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