Skip to main content

‘Hippo-shaped’ asteroid to fly close to Earth this Christmas

This Christmas, an unusual visitor will be swinging through our Solar System: an asteroid shaped like a hippo. The 2003 SD220 asteroid will pass close to Earth this weekend, coming as close as 1.8 million miles from our planet. This event marks the asteroid’s closest approach in more than 400 years, and if you miss it this time you’ll have to wait until 2070 for it to approach Earth any closer.

NASA has shared images of the asteroid which were captured between December 15 and 17 using a combination of telescopes and antennae. The tools used include the 230-foot (70-meter) antenna at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California, the National Science Foundation’s 330-foot (100-meter) Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, and the Arecibo Observatory’s 1,000-foot (305-meter) antenna in Puerto Rico.

Three radar images of near-Earth asteroid 2003 SD220, which many have described as hippo shaped NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR/NSF/GBO

The 2003 SD220 asteroid is at least one mile long and has a distinctive ridge that extends 330-feet above the terrain which surrounds it. You can see the ridge at the top of the asteroid in the third image above. It was possible to see the ridge and other features of the asteroid in great detail thanks to the powerful telescope used which provided high resolution images. “The radar images achieve an unprecedented level of detail and are comparable to those obtained from a spacecraft flyby,” Lance Benner of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and leading scientist at the Goldstone complex explained. As well as the ridge, “Numerous small bright spots are visible in the data and may be reflections from boulders. The images also show a cluster of dark, circular features near the right edge that may be craters.”

As well as using this data to understand more about asteroids and their geology, the science community has been having some fun with the shape of 2003 SD200. When announcing the images, NASA’S JPL twitter account asked “Do you want a hippopotamus for Christmas?” Though some biologists have disagreed, saying that the asteroid looks more like a giant paramecium, a single celled organism found in marine environments. We leave it up to you to decide what kind of creature the asteroid most resembles.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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
Astronomers spot a huge ‘planet killer’ asteroid between Earth and Venus
Twilight observations with the US Department of Energy-fabricated Dark Energy Camera at NOIRLab’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile have enabled astronomers to spot three near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) hiding in the glare of the Sun. These NEAs are part of an elusive population that lurks inside the orbits of Earth and Venus. One of the asteroids is the largest object that is potentially hazardous to Earth to be discovered in the last eight years.

In sinister news for a spooky day, astronomers announced that they have spotted a huge asteroid nearly a mile wide thst could one day intersect with Earth's path. The asteroid, along with two others, had been hiding in the glare from the sun, but was spotted using an Earth-based instrument called the Dark Energy Camera (DECam).

The three asteroids orbit between the orbits of Earth and Venus, but only the largest has an orbit that comes close to Earth's orbit. This one, named 2022 AP7, is the largest potentially hazardous asteroid discovered in eight years.

Read more