See 'Potentially Hazardous' Asteroid Heading Towards Earth Before Weekend's Close Approach

Astronomers have captured an image of a "potentially hazardous" asteroid that is set to make a close approach to the Earth this weekend.

The space rock, dubbed (231937) 2001 FO32, will come within around 1.3 million miles of our planet—equivalent to roughly 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 (CNEOS.)

Gianluca Masi, an astronomer from the Virtual Telescope Project (VTP,) captured an image of the asteroid on March 16, using a remotely operated 17-inch telescope named "Elena" in Ceccano, Italy. At the time, the asteroid was located more than 10 million miles away from the Earth.

Recent analysis has shown that the asteroid—which was discovered in March 2001 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program in Socorro, New Mexico—measures between 1,300 and 2,230 feet, according to NASA.

Previously, astronomers had estimated that the object was likely significantly larger. For example, figures on the CNEOS website indicated, until recently, that 2001 FO32 measured between 2,526 and 5,577 feet.

Even at the smallest end of its latest size estimate, NASA says it is still the largest asteroid to pass so close to Earth in 2021.

The trajectory of this object is well known and there is no threat of a collision this year, or indeed for centuries to come.

"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, previously told Newsweek.

The asteroid 2001 FO32
Image captured by the Virtual Telescope Project showing the asteroid 2001 FO32. Gianluca Masi/Virtual Telescope Project

Near-Earth objects are classified as potentially hazardous if they are estimated to measure more than 460 feet in diameter, while also having trajectories that can take them within 4.6 million miles of the Earth's orbit.

At the time of close approach, 2001 FO32 will be travelling at nearly 77,000 miles per hour, which also makes it the fastest asteroid to fly past Earth this year. The unusually high speed is thanks to the asteroid's highly inclined and elongated orbit around the sun, which it completes once every 810 days.

"The orbit is more elongated—higher eccentricity—than most near-Earth objects, but not unusually so. This gives it a higher velocity when passing through the inner solar system." Binzel said.

The object will not come this close to the Earth again until 2052, when it will pass our planet at a distance of around 1.75 million miles.

The upcoming close approach will provide astronomers with a rare and valuable opportunity to study the asteroid—a rocky relic that formed in the early days of our solar system.

An asteroid
Stock image: Artist's illustration of an asteroid. This weekend, the "potentially hazardous" asteroid 2001 FO32 will make a close approach to Earth. iStock