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Huge, ‘potentially hazardous’ asteroid flies past Earth at super speed

Click to play video 'NASA runs simulation involving Armageddon-style asteroid impact' NASA runs simulation involving Armageddon-style asteroid impact
WATCH: NASA ran an exercise in 2019 to practise for real asteroid impacts.

Stargazers, astronomers and Armageddon fans had their eyes glued to a livestreamed feed of the solar system on Wednesday, as a “potentially hazardous asteroid” — the size of four CN Towers — hurtled past Earth.

The massive chunk of space rock, known as 1998 OR2, approached our planet early Wednesday in a relatively close fly-by that posed no threat to life on Earth. It began the approach just before 6 a.m. ET, and was expected to remain relatively close by throughout the day.

Experts said it would be visible to amateur astronomers through a telescope, but it was never anticipated to come any closer than about 6.3 million kilometres to Earth. That’s roughly 16 times the distance between our planet and the moon.

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In other words, NASA didn’t even think about tapping Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck to stop a dinosaur extinction-level event.

The two-kilometre-wide asteroid would have been big enough to do some serious damage, particularly if it hit Earth at its estimated speed of 30,578 kilometres (19,000 miles) per hour, or roughly 25 times the speed of sound.

The fly-by was set to be an “exceptional opportunity” for astronomers to study the rock, according to NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies.

Researchers at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico shared imagery of the asteroid earlier this week. They joked that the asteroid appeared to have brought its own “face mask” in the middle of Earth’s coronavirus pandemic, based on a curved white line that appeared during their scans.

Anne Virkki, head of Planetary Radar at the Arecibo Observatory, and Asteroid 1998 OR2 pose with their masks.
Anne Virkki, head of Planetary Radar at the Arecibo Observatory, and Asteroid 1998 OR2 pose with their masks. Via University of Central Florida

The Virtual Telescope Project in Europe set up a livestream for those who wanted to watch the latter part of the fly-by on Wednesday, beginning at 2:30 p.m. ET.

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Scientists have seen this big one coming for over two decades, thanks to a robust international system for spotting and tracking asteroids in our neighbourhood of space. It was dubbed a “potentially hazardous asteroid” due to its sheer size and relatively close flightpath, but experts say there was never any concern that it might hit us.

“This asteroid poses no danger to Earth and will not hit,” astrophysicist Brad Tucker at the Australian National University told the Guardian.

“It is one catastrophe we won’t have,” Tucker said.

He added that the giant rock wouldn’t have wiped out all life on Earth, even if it had been on a collision course with the planet.

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“While it is big, it is still smaller than the asteroid that impacted the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs,” he said.

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However, the asteroid-tracking system isn’t perfect, as astronomers discovered late last year. That’s when they spotted a potential city-killing asteroid approaching Earth just a few days before it flew past at a distance much closer than the moon.

NASA has said that it would take an asteroid larger than one to two kilometres to alter Earth’s global climate, and one larger than five kilometres to cause a mass extinction event. Those are still relatively tiny compared to the space rock that killed the dinosaurs, which measured an estimated 16 kilometres wide.

No such object is expected to hit the Earth for several hundred years.

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Earthlings who live another couple of decades might get a chance to see 1998 OR2 come even closer to our planet in the future, according to NASA data. The asteroid is expected to come within 1.8 million kilometres of Earth on April 16, 2079, according to NASA projections. That’s still about four times the distance from Earth to the moon, and there is no chance of an impact at that time.

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“We understand its orbital trajectory very precisely, and we can say with confidence that this asteroid poses no possibility of impact for at least the next 200 years,” NASA said.

The space agency says the asteroid is still considered “potentially hazardous” because slight changes in its orbit could present a danger to the Earth at some distant point in the future.

But don’t worry: you’ll have gone the way of the dinosaurs by the time that happens.