Coronavirus cosmology? Planetary personal protective equipment? Or just imaginative astronomers?
A massive asteroid 1.3 miles wide that is on course to fly by Earth next week has drawn special attention from scientists, who noticed that in their radar images it has the appearance of wearing a face mask.
Images from the Aricebo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the world’s most powerful radio telescope, show the asteroid, which is named 1998-OR2, and flying at a sizzling 82,769 mph, seems to look like millions of other people around the world these days, and like the mask-wearing researchers sitting in labs monitoring it.
“The small-scale topographic features such as hills and ridges on one end of asteroid 1998 OR2 are fascinating scientifically,” said Anne Virkki, head of Planetary Radar at the observatory. “But since we are all thinking about COVID-19, these features make it look like 1998 OR2 remembered to wear a mask.”
The asteroid, which orbits the sun every three years, is on a path to zoom harmlessly by Earth next Wednesday. It will come within 3.9 million miles of our planet. That’s close in astronomical terms, but not dangerously close. For comparison, the moon is about 238,900 miles away.
Scientists working with NASA and other organizations monitor large asteroids. A large one the size of 1998 OR2 could kill millions of people if it were to ever directly hit Earth. An asteroid estimated at between 7 and 50 miles wide hit Earth 66 million years ago, in present-day Yucatan, Mexico, and is believed to have wiped out dinosaurs.
This asteroid, which was discovered by astronomers in Hawaii in 1998, is expected to be the largest asteroid to fly by Earth this year. It orbits the sun every three years and eight months.
The hulking rock poses no immediate threat. The next time it will fly dangerously close to Earth is estimated to be April 16, 2079, when it will speed within about 1 million miles of Earth.
NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies tracks the paths of thousands of asteroids. If a large one ever appeared to be on a collision course with Earth, scientists would likely send a spacecraft of some type to deflect it. NASA is set to launch a test mission in July 2021 to send a space probe to crash into an asteroid about 500 feet wide a year later, in September, 2022. The mission, called DART — for Double Asteroid Redirection Test — will test how much an asteroid can be deflected to help design future missions that may be needed to protect Earth from an impact.
The researchers at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which is managed by the University of Central Florida, are following the current asteroid fly-by closely to learn more.
“Although this asteroid is not projected to impact Earth, it is important to understand the characteristics of these types of objects to improve impact-risk mitigation technologies,” said Flaviane Venditti, a research scientist at the observatory.
And due to the coronavirus pandemic, they are all wearing masks.
#TeamRadar and the @NAICobservatory staff are taking the proper safety measures as we continue observations. This week we have been observing near-Earth asteroid 1998 OR2, which looks like it's wearing a mask! It's at least 1.5 km across and is passing 16 lunar distances away! pic.twitter.com/X2mQJCT2Qg