On Thursday, January 26, a small near-Earth asteroid will have a very close encounter with our planet. The asteroid, designated 2023 BU, will pass over the southern tip of South America at about 4:27 p.m. PST (7:27 p.m. EST) only 2,200 miles (3,600 kilometers) above the planet’s surface and deep in the orbit of geosynchronous satellites.
There is no danger of an asteroid hitting Earth. But even if it did, this small asteroid—estimated to be 11.5 to 28 feet (3.5 to 8.5 meters) in diameter—would have turned into a fireball and largely disintegrated harmlessly in the atmosphere, leaving some larger fragments would potentially fall as small meteorites.
The asteroid was discovered by amateur astronomer Gennadiy Borisov, discoverer of the interstellar comet 2I/Borisov, from his MARGO observatory in Nauchnya, Crimea, on Saturday, January 21. Additional sightings were reported to the Minor Planet Center (MPC) – the international recognized clearinghouse for measuring the position of small celestial bodies – and the data was then automatically sent to the Near Earth Object Confirmation page. After enough observations were collected, the MPC announced the discovery. Over the course of three days, a number of observatories around the world made dozens of observations that helped astronomers better pinpoint the orbit of 2023 BU.
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NASA’s Scout impact hazard assessment system, managed by the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, analyzed data from the MPC confirmation page and quickly predicted a near miss. CNEOS calculates every known near-Earth asteroid orbit to provide an assessment of potential impact hazards in support of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO).
“Scout quickly ruled out 2023 BU as an impactor, but despite very few observations, it was still able to predict that the asteroid would come extremely close to Earth,” said Davide Farnocchia, a navigation engineer at JPL who developed Scout. “In fact, this is one of the closest approaches of a known near-Earth object ever recorded.”
While any near-Earth asteroid will experience a change in trajectory due to our planet’s gravity, 2023 BU will come so close that its orbit around the Sun is expected to be significantly altered. Before the encounter with Earth, the asteroid’s orbit around the Sun was roughly circular, approaching that of Earth, taking 359 days to complete an orbit around the Sun. After the encounter, the asteroid’s orbit will lengthen, moving roughly halfway between the orbits of Earth and Mars at its furthest point from the Sun. The asteroid then completes one orbit every 425 days.
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