Skip to main content

Astronomers spot asteroid just two days before it comes within 25K miles of Earth

An illustration of an asteroid hurtling past Earth.
Image used with permission by copyright holder
An asteroid buzzed by Earth on Wednesday, coming within 25,000 miles of our planet. That may not sound like a close call but — given the massive scale of the universe — it is. In a press release, NASA points out that the asteroid’s distance to Earth was 1/10th the distance of the Earth to the moon.

As asteroid 2016 RB1 passed under the Earth’s south pole, it didn’t disrupt communication or weather satellites, which orbit Earth a little over 22,000 miles away. If it weren’t for careful inspection from a team of astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey, we may not have even noticed it.

The asteroid, 2016 RB1, was discovered on Monday by astronomers using the 60-inch Cassegrain reflector telescope positioned at the top of Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, Arizona. At 25 to 50 feet in diameter, 2016 RB1 is a fraction of the size of the largest asteroid to pass near Earth this year, 2016 FN56, which has a diameter between 115 and 280 feet.

NASA keeps a tally of all known asteroids as a part of its Near-Earth Object Program, which let’s scientists and members of the public track these space rocks. We’ll be visited by 2016 RB1 again but it won’t come as close to Earth as it did Wednesday for at least another 50 years, according to NASA.

Many scientists have a special interest in asteroids as ancient objects that offer insight into the formation of our solar system.

On Thursday night, NASA commenced a 7-year mission by launching OSIRIS-REx, a probe that will travel to a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu, where it will suck up dust samples and return them to Earth for observations. The agency is also working on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which will see a spacecraft rendezvous with an asteroid, collect a boulder, and attempt to gently deflect the asteroid’s trajectory before returning to Earth. This maneuver, called a planetary defense demonstration, may one day help knock an inbound asteroid off its path toward Earth.

Editors' Recommendations

Dyllan Furness
Dyllan Furness is a freelance writer from Florida. He covers strange science and emerging tech for Digital Trends, focusing…
NASA probe successfully touches Bennu asteroid for sample collection
This artist's rendering shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collecting a sample from the asteroid Bennu using a mechanical arm to touch the asteroid's surface.

Tour of Asteroid Bennu

NASA is celebrating tonight after its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully touched the Bennu asteroid in a bid to collect rock and dust samples from its surface. It's the first time for the space agency to perform such a feat.

Read more
NASA preps touchdown on an asteroid 207 million miles away
This artist’s concept shows NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft descending towards asteroid Bennu to collect a sample of the asteroid’s surface.


NASA is preparing to pull off a daring heist: Next month the robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx will touch down on the surface of asteroid Bennu and collect a sample, aiming to precisely touch this tiny asteroid just 260 meters wide and which is currently around 207 million miles away from Earth.

Read more
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to perform an asteroid sampling rehearsal
This artist’s concept shows the trajectory and configuration of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft during Checkpoint rehearsal, which is the first time the mission will practice the initial steps for collecting a sample from asteroid Bennu.

This summer, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will attempt to touch down onto the surface of asteroid Bennu and collect a sample to be brought back to Earth for the first time. But it's no easy task to maneuver a spacecraft so close to an asteroid, getting it close enough to grab a sample without impacting too hard and damaging the craft. Not to mention the role of microgravity created by the asteroid's mass.

So this week, NASA will perform a test run of the touchdown, called the "Checkpoint" rehearsal. This will bring OSIRIS-REx the closest it has ever come to Bennu, coming as close as within 243 feet of the asteroid.

Read more