Photo Shows Asteroid Bigger Than Three Football Fields Approaching Earth

An astronomer has captured an image showing one of the largest asteroids scheduled to fly past Earth this year as it approaches our planet.

The space rock, (231937) 2001 FO32, will come within 1.3 million miles of our planet—equivalent to around five times the average distance between the Earth and the moon— at 11:03 a.m. ET on March 21, according to NASA's Center for Near Earth Object Studies.

Previous figures provided by the CNEOS indicated that 2001 FO32 measured between 2,526 and 5,577 feet, based on its observed magnitude. But more recent observations show that the asteroid likely measures between 1,300 and 2,230 feet, according to NASA.

Even at the smallest estimate, the diameter of the space rock would be equivalent to about three-and-a-half football fields. And 2001 FO32 will still be the largest asteroid to pass this close to our planet in 2021. It is traveling at a staggering speed—nearly 77,000 miles per hour, which also makes it the fastest asteroid to fly past Earth this year.

Astronomer Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project snapped an image of 2001 FO32 on Thursday when the rock was around 20 million miles from Earth.

The image comes from a single 180-second exposure, taken remotely using the 17-inch Elena robotic telescope in Ceccano, Italy—around 60 miles south of Rome.

At the time, 2001 FO32 was very low on the southern horizon so conditions were far from ideal, Masi said. Despite this, the asteroid is visible in the image—albeit only as a very small dot.

The asteroid was discovered on March 23, 2001, by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research project—a collaboration between the U.S. Air Force, NASA and MIT's Lincoln Laboratory.

Image of the asteroid 2001 FO32
The Virtual Telescope Project image of the asteroid 2001 FO32. Gianluca Masi/Virtual Telescope Project

Near-Earth objects, or NEOs, are astronomical bodies in our cosmic neighborhood whose orbits around the sun can take them within 30 million miles of Earth's own orbital path.

2001 FO32 is also designated as "potentially hazardous," which refers to objects estimated to measure more than 460 feet in diameter that can approach within 4.6 million miles of the Earth's orbit.

Despite the tag, astronomers know the orbit of this asteroid well and there is no chance it will strike our planet in the foreseeable future.

"The potentially hazardous designation simply notes that it is an important one to track and verify as zero, which is the case," Richard Binzel, a planetary scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Newsweek.

Don Yeomans, a former NASA planetary scientist, said the upcoming fly-by would be the object's closest Earth approach at least until 2196—and since 1901.

"Orbital integrations beyond 2196 or before 1901 are not considered reliably accurate," he said.

An asteroid
Stock image: Artist's rendering of an asteroid. On March 21, the space rock 2001 FO32 will make a close approach to the Earth. iStock