Huge Asteroid Up to 1,600 Feet Wide to Pass Earth Just Before Lunar Eclipse

A huge asteroid, potentially measuring up to 1,600 feet across, is set to fly past the Earth this weekend, just before a total lunar eclipse graces the skies.

The space rock, known as 2008 TZ3, will come as close as about 3.6 million miles to our planet on May 15 at 9:18 p.m. UTC, or 5:18 p.m. ET, figures from NASA's Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) show.

The asteroid will reach this point shortly before the first phase of a total lunar eclipse is set to begin at 9:32 p.m. ET on May 15.

While 3.6 million miles is considered a close approach in astronomical terms, there is absolutely no threat of a collision with Earth.

"2008 TZ3 will fly by at about 15 times the distance of the Moon; we know the orbit of this asteroid very accurately, and we can predict with confidence that it cannot get closer than about 15 lunar distances on May 15, which means it won't get closer than about 3.6 million miles," Paul Chodas, director of the CNEOS, told Newsweek.

Much Faster Than a Bullet

During the space rock's close approach, it will be traveling at approximately 18,300 miles per hour relative to the Earth, according to the CNEOS, which is about nine times faster than a bullet from a rifle.

The CNEOS estimates the asteroid measures between around 720 feet and 1,600 feet, which at the upper limit would mean it is wider than the Empire State Building is tall.

"The size could be anywhere in between the limits we give," Chodas said. "And this is an 'average' dimension for the asteroid: if it is not spherical, its longest extent may even exceed our upper value."

Based on variations in its brightness, the rotation period of this particular asteroid is about 39 hours, according to Chodas.

The space rock was discovered on October 6, 2008, by the Mt. Lemmon Survey in Arizona and scientists have been tracking it for over 13 years.

"We have been predicting this month's close approach for over a decade, since this asteroid's orbit is well known," Chodas said.

Close Approach

2008 TZ3 has come closer to Earth than this year's close approach on several occasions: in 2016, 2018 and 2020. The 2018 approach was the closest of all, with the asteroid coming as close as six lunar distances.

"There is a two-year repeating pattern with these close approaches, but the future ones will be increasingly farther," Chodas said.

2008 TZ3 is one of many near-Earth objects (NEOs)—a term used to refer to any astronomical body that passes within around 30 million miles of our planet's orbit

To date, astronomers have discovered more than 29,000 NEOs—the majority of which are asteroids and quite tiny.

More than 2,260 of these NEOs are categorized as "Potentially Hazardous" based on their orbits and larger sizes. But CNEOS's analysis of their orbits indicates that none of them has any chance of colliding with Earth over the next century or so.

2008 TZ3 is categorized as Potentially Hazardous, "but that merely reflects the fact that its orbit approaches close to Earth's orbit," Chodas said.

"The orbits do not cross, and our analyses show that there is no chance that 2008 TZ3 can impact at any time over at least the next century," he said. "The 'Potentially Hazardous' designation simply means over many centuries and millennia, the asteroid's orbit may evolve into one that has a chance of impacting Earth. We do not asses these long-term many-century possibilities of impact."

2008 TZ3 is a medium-sized NEO, with the known catalogue containing around 5,000 objects that are larger. Asteroids of this medium size collide with our planet only about once every 100,000 years or, on average, according to Chodas.

"If one of them should impact, which of course is extremely unlikely, it might result in continent-wide devastation," he said. "Our orbital analyses show that none of the roughly 5,000 known asteroids of this size or larger has any chance of impacting Earth over the next century."

"Now, more work needs to be done in searching for more [Potentially Hazardous asteroids] because we expect there are roughly another couple thousand [of them] yet to be discovered. Finding as many of those as possible is the main goal of NASA's upcoming NEO Surveyor mission."

An asteroid
A file photo of an asteroid. A huge asteroid potentially measuring up to 1,600 feet across is set to fly past the Earth this weekend. iStock