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An asteroid just came shockingly close as it flew by Earth

Published Aug 18th, 2020 4:32PM EDT
asteroid flyby
Image: Hubble Space Telescope / ESA

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  • An asteroid sped past Earth before any scientists even knew it was there.
  • The asteroid, which was estimated to be as large as 18 feet in width, passed within just 1,830 miles of our planet, making it the closest flyby without a collision ever recorded.
  • The rock’s relatively small size likely contributed to it flying “under the radar,” to so speak.

Near-Earth asteroids are typically spotted well in advance of their closest approach to our planet. That’s because space agencies and scientists around the world are regularly on the lookout for potentially hazardous space rocks that could pose a problem for us in the future.

Unfortunately, nobody saw the space rock now known as 2020 QG coming, and scientists only realized it flew by our planet hours after it had already passed. The rock zipped by at an incredibly close distance of roughly 1,830 miles, which makes it a record-breaker for the closest pass of Earth by an asteroid without actually hitting us. Wow.

The asteroid, which is estimated to be up to 18 feet wide, which sounds pretty small but it’s still large enough that it would classify as potentially hazardous. Its discovery was first tweeted out by astronomer Tony Dunn, who included a brief simulation showing the space rock’s flyby of our planet.

It’s easy to see the number 1,830 miles and think that it was extremely far away from Earth, but consider that the Moon is, on average, roughly 239,000 miles from Earth at any given moment. With that in mind, you can understand why scientists were surprised by the appearance of 2020 QG.

It’s worth noting that even if the asteroid was at the higher end of size estimates, it wouldn’t be considered a real “city killer” space rock. In all likelihood, the asteroid would have largely broken up when it impacted Earth’s atmosphere, with only very little of its material making it to the surface if any of it survived at all.

As Business Insider reports, Paul Chodas of NASA’s Centre for Near Earth Object Studies noted that the group “didn’t see it coming.” Additionally, Chodas said that the event was definitely a record-breaker, at least as far as NASA is concerned. “Yesterday’s close approach is closest on record, if you discount a few known asteroids that have actually impacted our planet,” Chodas said.

So, the good news is that the asteroid didn’t hit our planet, and even if it did, it probably wouldn’t have done much. The bad news, of course, is that it went completely undetected until it had already flown past our world. That’s not great news, but it’s also not entirely unexpected. Space rocks — especially those on the smaller end of the spectrum — can and will regularly slip through the cracks in our detection systems. The most important thing is that the larger, truly dangerous ones are spotted well in advance.

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