A kilometre-wide asteroid capable of triggering a mass extinction on Earth will cruise past our planet on Saturday, but NASA says fears of an impact are overblown.
The incoming asteroid, known as 2002 PZ39, is taller than the Burj Khalifa tower and hurtling through space at almost 55,000 kilometres per hour, according to NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS).
PZ39 is wide enough and nearly heavy enough to fit NASA’s definition of a “potentially hazardous asteroid,” which has prompted some amateurs to worry it might be a threat to the planet.
“Hey NASA can you confirm or deny this potential collision?” one user tweeted at NASA’s Asteroid Watch account on Wednesday. The question appeared to be a response to several U.K.-based reports of a close call with a “planet-killer” asteroid.
“Those stories are incorrect,” Asteroid Watch replied. “There are no concerns with asteroid 2002 PZ39 passing Earth.”
The asteroid is due to zoom past the planet on Saturday, Feb. 15, according to NASA data. However, the fly-by is only close by space measurements, as it’s projected to come no closer than 5.8 million kilometres to Earth.
That’s 15 times farther away than the moon, Asteroid Watch pointed out.
NASA’s Sentry System keeps track of all the known asteroids that could potentially cause catastrophic damage to the Earth. Astronomers generally know when and where these bodies will pass by our planet, and they can predict potential impacts several hundred years into the future.
However, the system is not foolproof, especially when it comes to smaller asteroids that pack the punch of a conventional nuclear bomb.
Last year, astronomers didn’t notice a potential city-killing asteroid until a few days before it whipped past the planet at a distance much closer than the moon. The asteroid didn’t hit Earth, but it sparked public fear because astronomers didn’t see it coming.
Astronomers have known about PZ39 since they first discovered it in 2002. The asteroid’s wobbly orbit takes it past Earth at varying distances every few years, but NASA has a pretty good idea of when and where it will be in relation to our planet at all times.
Tracking records show that Saturday’s fly-by won’t be the closest call Earth has had with PZ39. The asteroid passed slightly closer to our planet back in 1979, unbeknownst to anyone at the time.
PZ39 is also nothing compared to the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. That planet-changing asteroid is thought to have been about 16 kilometres across.
NASA says it would take an asteroid impact of “larger than 1-2 kilometres” to alter Earth’s global climate, and something larger than five kilometres to cause mass extinctions.
“NASA knows of no asteroid or comet currently on a collision course with Earth,” the space agency says on its website.
“As best we can tell, no large object is likely to strike the Earth any time in the next several hundred years.”
So take it easy. When the Big One hits, you’ll be dust anyway.