Science

“Potentially Hazardous” Asteroid 3200 Phaethon Back Again, But Don’t Worry

A massive asteroid that has zoomed past Earth more than 20 times in about the last 30 years is heading in for another near-miss with Earth tomorrow, but don’t lose too much sleep over it, even though it’s one of the asteroids NASA has classified as “potentially hazardous.” Astronomers say 3200 Phaethon will miss Earth and won’t fly this close again for another 75+ years.

Asteroid 3200 Phaethon
MasterTux / Pixabay

3200 Phaethon is heading for Earth

NASA issued a statement about 3200 Phaethon’s approach, complete with projected dates of its flybys with Earth. The asteroid is the third-biggest asteroid close to Earth, according to astronomers, and it orbits the sun every 523 days. Tomorrow it will come within 6.4 million miles of Earth as it zips by in outer space, which is the closest it has flown by since 1974, NASA said. It won’t come this close again until 2093, the agency added.

NASA said 3200 Phaethon can be seen at its Goldstone communications complex for approximately three weeks, and the agency is scheduling tracks on 10 days between December 11 and 21. The agency said the massive asteroid can also be seen at the observatory in Arecibo in Puerto Rico from December 15 to 19.

Astronomers discovered Phaethon in October 1983.

No chance of collision

3200 Phaethon is about three miles wide, and although astronomers say there’s no chance it will hit Earth, it is classified as a “potentially hazardous asteroid” due to its nearness to Earth and the amount of damage that could occur if it ever hits our planet. Astronomers agree almost unanimously that not asteroid, especially near-Earth asteroids, will smash into our planet within our lifetime, according to Fox News.

However, some scientists see a slight chance of a collision with another asteroid, 99942 Apophis, although it will be more than 10 years before it comes near Earth the next time. Even if astronomers ever think an asteroid will actually collide with Earth, NASA has a plan to deal with the threat. In June, the space agency showed off a video it created using a supercomputer and 3D modeling to simulate possible scenarios for asteroid strikes. Emergency personnel and various agencies can use the models to identify threats and decide what to do about them.

The near-miss with 3200 Phaethon is the second close flyby with an asteroid this year. The asteroid Florence, which is nearly the size of Phaethon, whizzed by safely 4.4 million miles away from Earth in August. Even more recently, the recently-discovered asteroid dubbed 2017 W12 passed by.

Asteroid believed to cause Geminid meteor shower

3200 Phaethon’s flyby coincides with the annual Geminid meteor shower, which peaked on Thursday. Astronomers believe that the asteroid causes the meteor shower. As Space.com explains, the asteroid is generally considered to be the “mother of all Geminids.” Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through a debris field a comet has left behind.

Because the orbit of 3200 Phaethon matches the Geminid meteor shower‘s clear path, astronomers believe that it could be what’s left of a comet that left behind a trail of debris that created the path which causes the meteor shower every year.