A massive asteroid named 3200 Phaethon is going to skim past quite close to Earth on Dec. 17.
U.S. space agency NASA has described the space rock as a potentially hazardous asteroid. Its path misses the orbit of Earth by only 2 million miles. Though the distance may seem a lot, in galactic terms, it is tiny.
Will Asteroid 3200 Phaethon Pose Any Danger?
The asteroid, which is only half the size of the rock that created the Chicxulub crater and wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, is not a threat to the planet. It has been termed potentially hazardous because it is a big space rock measuring 5 kilometers, which indicates that it is large enough to result in significant regional damage if it collides with Earth. The asteroid also makes periodic approaches to the planet.
Astronomers have studied the asteroid’s orbit well, so they see no upcoming strike with Earth in the foreseeable future. The massive space rock was discovered by NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite on Oct. 11, 1983.
An interesting feature of the asteroid is that it goes very near the sun, nearer than any other named asteroid. In fact, the space rock was given the name Phaethon as an ode to the mythological son of Helios, the Greek sun god of the same name.
Geminids Meteor Shower
Scientists think that the 3200 Phaethon causes the dazzling Geminids meteor shower, as there is a similarity between the asteroid’s orbit and that of the meteors. It takes place sometime between Dec. 13 and Dec. 14 and illuminates the sky with hundreds of bright meteors as they burn up in the planet’s atmosphere.
The Geminids are the only meteor shower that has their origin in an asteroid. Most meteor streams are linked to the icy debris left by comets, so scientists are unsure if the Phaethon is an inactive comet nucleus. They in fact find the asteroid to be a mysterious and interesting object, which has blurred the distinction between comets and asteroids.
Asteroids are more metallic or rockier than comets, with orbits that are more circular. Comets have more elongated orbits. The 3200 Phaethon has an orbit that resembles that of a comet than an asteroid, and it also ejects dust and has dust tails. Earth’s encounter with Phaethon this year will be the closest since 1974 and until 2093, so it will be possible for scientists to know more about it.
“Phaethon will approach within 0.069 au of Earth on 2017 December 16 when it will be a strong radar imaging target at Goldstone and Arecibo,” NASA stated. “We hope to obtain detailed images with resolutions as fine as 75 m/pixel at Goldstone and 15 m/pixel at Arecibo. The images should be excellent for obtaining a detailed 3D model.”