NASA is currently tracking an asteroid that the agency believes could pass close enough by our planet to cause an “airburst.” The asteroid, known as 2020 EF, is being tracked by NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CENOS). Still, despite the close proximity of the asteroid, experts believe that it is no threat to the planet because it is too small to survive contact with Earth’s atmosphere, and will likely break into many small pieces if it does come that close to the surface of the earth.
The asteroid is only about 98 feet in diameter and is traveling extremely fast, with an incredible speed of 10,000 mph.
Researchers have classified 2020 EF as an Aten asteroid, which is a group of asteroids whose orbits naturally come close to the Earth, and in some cases even come into contact with the earth. This asteroid is expected to pass by earth on March 18 at 11:15 p.m. EST.
The excitement does not stop there though, another asteroid, called 2020 DP4, which is much larger and traveling much faster than 2020 EF, will come just a few days later, on March 22nd at 2:36 p.m EST. 2020 DP4 is estimated to be bout 180 feet wide and traveling at a velocity rate of 18,000 mph according to CNEOS. In both cases, experts believe that we will be safe from the asteroids, although some parts of the world could experience and air burst.
Many explosions recorded in Earth’s atmosphere are likely to be caused by the air bursts that result from meteors exploding as they hit the thicker part of the atmosphere. These types of meteors are also known as fireballs or bolides with the brightest known as superbolides. Before entering Earth’s atmosphere, these larger meteors were originally asteroids and comets of a few to several tens of meters in diameter, contrasting with the much smaller and much more common “shooting stars”.
The most powerful recorded air burst is the 1908 Tunguska event. Extremely bright fireballs traveling across the sky are often witnessed from a distance, such as the 1947 Sikhote-Alin meteor and the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor, both of which were in Russia.
Much larger asteroids have come within a close distance of Earth’s orbit in the past. That largest ever was the asteroid called 3122 Florence (1981 ET3), which flew by the earth on September 1, 2017 and came a bit too close for comfort. That asteroid is estimated to be between two and a half and five and a half miles wide, and it is projected to make another pass of our planet again on September 2, 2057.
These types of objects come close to our orbit more often than people believe. In fact, space is filled with asteroids and similar objects, and they pass by us on a routine basis. There are even many asteroids that do enter our atmosphere but either disintegrate before they hit the ground, or are so small that they don’t do any serious damage.
Ed Lu, executive director of the Asteroid Institute and a former NASA astronaut, said that it’s an exciting time for planetary defense because we are on the verge of an “absolute flood of new observations” that will allow us to track 10 times more asteroids than we have ever tracked before.