Skip to main content

Amateur astronomer discovers huge asteroid that will cruise past Earth

An amateur astronomer has spotted a huge asteroid more than half a mile across, and it’s headed near Earth.

But there’s no need to panic. Asteroid 2020 QU6 will miss our planet by 25 million miles.

Even so, it will come close enough to be classified as a near-Earth object (NEO), defined as a body whose orbits comes within 1.3 astronomical units of the sun (an astronomical unit is the distance between the sun and the Earth).

What is slightly concerning is that no official space agency spotted this asteroid before amateur astronomer Leonardo Amaral saw it.

That’s because the major sky surveys are all based in the Northern Hemisphere, making is difficult to spot objects that are approaching the Southern Hemisphere. Amaral was able to see the asteroid as he was looking from an observatory in Brazil.

An artist's impression of an asteroid approaching Earth
An artist’s impression of an asteroid approaching Earth NASA

Amaral spotted the asteroid using the 0.3-meter reflector at the Campo dos Amarais observatory, which was recently upgraded thanks to a grant from the Planetary Society that is given to amateur astronomers tracking potentially dangerous space objects. This supports the work of space agencies on planetary protection, such as NASA’s upcoming Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission (NEOSM), set to launch in 2025.

“This discovery reminds us that even though we’ve found most large NEOs, we haven’t found all of them,” Casey Dreier, chief advocate and senior space policy adviser for the Planetary Society, said in a statement. “We must continue to support ground-based astronomers and invest in new space-based capabilities like NEOSM in order to protect Earth now and in the future.”

There are regular news stories about asteroids heading for Earth, including a recent one about an asteroid expected to pass by Earth the day before the U.S. presidential election. But experts say that, despite the frequency of stories, there isn’t a problem with more asteroids. In fact, the number of surveys of the sky mean we’re more likely to spot them than before.

“In the news, we hear more and more frequently about asteroid discoveries, primarily because we are getting better at finding and tracking near-Earth asteroids,” Planetary Society Chief Scientist Bruce Betts said in the statement. “There aren’t suddenly more asteroids, we’re just getting better at seeing them.”

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
A large asteroid is about to zip between Earth and the moon
An artist's impression of an asteroid approaching Earth

A newly discovered asteroid up to 310 feet wide will hurtle between Earth and the moon this weekend at a speed of about 17,000 miles per hour (27,400 kilometers per hour) relative to Earth.

Asteroid 2023 DZ2 was discovered by astronomers at the observatory of La Palma, in the Canary Islands, Spain, on February 27.

Read more
An asteroid just came incredibly close to Earth
An artist's impression of an asteroid approaching Earth

An asteroid just hurtled past Earth in an event described by NASA as “one of the closest approaches by a near-Earth object ever recorded.”

Asteroid 2023 BU zipped by at 7:27 p.m. (4:27 p.m. PT), passing over the southern tip of South America a mere 2,200 miles from Earth’s surface -- a distance that put it well within the orbit of geosynchronous satellites.

Read more
How astronomers worked together to spot an asteroid before it hit Earth
This time-lapse photograph was taken by astronomer Robert Weryk from near his home in London, Ontario, Canada, after NASA’s Scout system forewarned him about the entry of 2022 WJ1 on Nov. 19, 2022. The resulting fireball streaked directly overhead and continued east until it broke up.

This month, a small asteroid hurtled through space toward the Earth and entered the sky above Toronto. Even though it was only around a meter across and burnt up harmlessly in the atmosphere, this asteroid was notable because it was one of the first few asteroids to strike Earth that we knew was coming.

The asteroid, named 2022 WJ1, was first discovered by a project called the Catalina Sky Survey which uses a telescope at the Catalina Station near Tucson, Arizona. It was seen around four hours before it was due to strike Earth, making it just the sixth asteroid to date identified before impacting Earth. The detection was passed to a group called the Minor Planet Center which brings together international data on near-Earth objects and coordinates follow-up observations with astronomers around the world.

Read more