A huge asteroid 20% larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo is set to make a close approach to the Earth next week.
The 520-foot space rock designated was only discovered this year and astronomers have named it 2021 SM3.
The object has been classified by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a near-Earth object or NEO.
An NEO is any asteroid or comet that comes within a distance of around 120 million miles of Earth.
Astronomers pay special attention to these objects because their paths through space could potentially be perturbed by Earth’s gravity, making their future courses unpredictable.
2021 SM3’s closest approach this year will bring it to within 3 million miles of Earth – further away than The Moon but a good deal closer than “neighbouring” planets such as Venus (77 million miles) and Mars (a comparatively local 244 million miles).
With an estimated diameter of up to 520 feet, 2021 SM3 is a shade bigger than the Great Pyramid, and any future Earth impact could have devastating consequences.
As such, 2021 SM3 fulfils most of the criteria to be classed a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid by NASA’s Centre for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS).
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Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs) are any space rocks larger than 450 feet wide with a course that brings them to within 4.5 million miles of Earth.
However, current observations from CNEOS rule out any impact from 2021 SM3 for at least 100 years, by which time mankind will hopefully have developed the technology to deal with it.
NASA is testing just such a system this year. On November 23 the DART, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test, mission will be launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, on one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicles.
Scientists plan to direct DART onto a collision course with Dimorphos, a 525-foot asteroid that orbits a larger companion called Didymos.
The half-mile monster asteroid Didymos will come to within some 6.8 million miles of Earth in September 2022. During that close approach, DART will smash into the asteroid ‘moon’ at around 15,000mph.
If NASA’s sums are correct, the collision will reduce Dimorphos’s speed by 1%.
That may not seem like much but the experiment will teach scientists a great deal about how to prevent deadly asteroid impacts in future.
"The Earth is hit by asteroids and pieces of asteroids all the time," said Andy Rivkin, DART's co-lead investigator from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. "Every year or so, we get hit by things the size of a table".
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