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3200 Phaethon To Brush Past Earth In December: Why The Giant Is Asteroid Still A Mystery

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A giant space object is expected to have a close shave with Earth next month but the object, asteroid 3200 Phaethon, is still shrouded in mystery.

A Close Encounter In December

Next month, experts are expecting giant asteroid 3200 Phaethon to pay us a visit and bring with it, as it always has, a spectacular light show in the form of the Geminids meteor shower. It is a massive asteroid at 5.10 kilometers in diameter that orbits the sun and, in the process, passes by Earth as well.

This year, however, 3200 Phaethon will pass by really close and miss Earth's orbit by just a couple of million miles. In fact, the International Astronomical Union's (IAU) Minor Planet Center has categorized 3200 Phaethon as a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA).

The close encounter is expected just days before the annual Geminids meteor shower, which is expected to be active between Dec. 4 and Dec. 16, with its peak on Dec. 13 and 14. The Geminids sky event is quite unique, as it is the only meteor shower with a parent that is not a comet but an object that seems to be an asteroid.

The Mystery Of Phaethon

3200 Phaethon was discovered in October 11, 1983, and was named after the Greek mythological character of Phaethon, son of Helios, god of the sun. It was named as such because of its close approach to our sun. Though it is technically classified as an asteroid, there are still questions as to the origins of the heavenly body. For instance, how could an asteroid produce the Geminids meteor shower when it is believed to be of made of pure rock?

Experts thought that perhaps the Phaethon broke off from another space object and ejects meteoroids as a result or that perhaps it collided with another object thousands of years ago. There was also the theory that perhaps Phaethon is a dead comet that once had ice. However, none of the theories held up to the current data that they have.

In 2009, experts observed Phaethon to brighten by up to a factor of two, which experts presumed to be a result of dust release from heating and cracking because of the sun's intense heat. This gave them the idea that it is perhaps a rock comet or a new kind of comet that comes very close to the sun. However, the dust that they observed did not seem nearly enough to explain the Geminids meteor shower.

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