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A Car‑Sized Asteroid Flew By Earth at the Closest Ever Recorded Distance

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Aug 19, 2020

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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An asteroid named 2020 QG passed 2,950 km above the Southern Indian Ocean on August 16, making it the closest recorded non-impacting asteroid, according to the U.S. National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA).

This close, quick fly-by was unexpected, according to scientists, and went undetected for almost six hours after the object’s closest approach. “The asteroid approached undetected from the direction of the sun…We didn’t see it coming,” Paul Chodas, the director of NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, told Business Insider.

2020 QG flew by the Earth at 27,600 mph (44,400 kph) and measures around 20 feet in diameter — similar to the size of a car. But, this asteroid did not pose a danger to Earth. If 2020 QG would have come into contact with the Earth’s atmosphere, the resultant explosion would’ve occurred a few miles above ground. This means that there would be no impact on Earth, even though the air explosion would’ve equaled that of a couple dozen kilotons of TNT.


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“It’s quite an accomplishment to find these tiny close-in asteroids in the first place because they pass by so fast,” Chodas told Asian News International. “There’s typically only a short window of a couple of days before or after close approach when this small of an asteroid is close enough to Earth to be bright enough but not so close that it moves too fast in the sky to be detected by a telescope.”

However, the asteroid’s stealthiness is a cause of worry, as larger asteroids that breach the Earth’s atmosphere can kill tens of thousands of people. In previous instances, a 2013 asteroid explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia injured 1500 people and shattered windows in six Russian cities, after an atmospheric explosion equivalent to 500 kilotons of TNT.

While organizations like NASA are mandated to monitor the skies for such threats, it is extremely difficult to spot objects that come from the direction of the sun via optical telescopes. However, NASA’s 2020 has a US$36 million allowance for a space telescope that can detect asteroids and comets coming in from the sun’s direction. This project, called the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission, could launch as early as 2025.

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Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is the senior culture writer at The Swaddle, with an interest in cultural analysis, environment, and the science of mental health.  Write to her using aditi@theswaddle.com, or find her on social media @aditimurti.

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