Although it may seem scary, the 5 km wide Phaethon asteroid doesn’t pose any real threat to us here on Earth. The world is full of all sorts of natural disasters, and some of those could potentially come from space, but this specific asteroid’s trajectory shouldn’t be any cause for alarm.
Phaethon is an asteroid with an oblong orbit that intersects Earth, and it’s scheduled to make a nearby approach on December 16th. While many people may make a big deal out of the event, in actuality it’s not coming very close to us in practical terms. The Phaethon asteroid will pass us by roughly 6,500,000 miles away, which is close enough to view with a telescope but far enough to be insignificant when it comes to us here on Earth. The next time the Phaethon asteroid will come anywhere near this close will be almost 80 years from now in 2093.
Still, Phaethon has been a subject of intense observation since its discovery in 1983. Named after the Greek myth of Phaethon, son of the sun god Helios, due to its close approach to our Sun, it’s classified as a “Potentially Hazardous Asteroid” according to this NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory sheet.
This rating is a bit of a misnomer, however, as it implies that the asteroid is some sort of immediate threat. Basically, the classification means that at some point in the future it could cross paths with Earth. While a measurement of 5 km is pretty big for an Asteroid, it’s insignificant when measuring distances of millions of kilometers. The Phaethon asteroid, like most large bodies in outer space, has a trajectory that changes somewhat over hundreds or thousands of years. “Potentially Hazardous Asteroid” is more of a statement of plausibility, rather than present danger.
Phaethon is not currently a danger to the Earth, but it’s still pretty cool and worthy of further study. It’s responsible for a meteor shower here on Earth called the Geminids, and said shower is unique because it’s caused by an asteroid rather than a comet. The Geminids shower is expected to be active between Dec. 4 and Dec. 16, with an estimated peak on Dec. 13-14.
As a body that passes this close to earth, the Phaethon asteroid is something to keep an eye on. Make sure you don’t pay much attention to any hysteria related to this event, however, as it’s not currently on a trajectory that constitutes any significant danger.