Nasa has confirmed that an enormous asteroid will brush past Earth on December 16.
The asteroid, called 3200 Phaethon, measures three miles (five kilometres) in diameter, and is classed as ‘potentially hazardous.’
During the pass, the asteroid is estimated to be around 6.4 million miles away from our planet – around 27 times the distance between the Earth and the moon.
It will be the closest this asteroid has been to Earth since December 16, 1974, when it was around 5 million miles away.
Nasa has confirmed that an enormous asteroid will brush past Earth on December 16. The asteroid, called 3200 Phaethon, measures three miles (five kilometres) in diameter, and is classed as ‘potentially hazardous’
The asteroid is named after the son of the Greek sun god Helios ‘Phaethon’ because it passes so close to the sun.
Legend claims the young demi-god was challenged to prove he was related to Helios, who was said to pull the sun across the sky.
To prove his divine provenance, Phaethon rode his father’s chariot, but was unable to control the horses, who then ran wild across the sky, dragging the sun with them.
Earth was almost destroyed in the ensuing chaos, which scorched the planet, burned vast amounts of vegetation and created the great deserts of Africa.
In a statement about the asteroid, a spokesperson for Nasa said: ‘With a diameter of about 5 km, Phaethon is the third largest near-Earth asteroid classified as “Potentially Hazardous”.’
Nasa expects Phaethon to make its closest pass with Earth on December 16, during which time the space agency hopes to take detailed images of the asteroid.
The Nasa spokesperson said: ‘Phaethon will approach within 0.069 au of Earth on 2017 December 16 when it will be a strong radar imaging target at Goldstone and Arecibo.
‘This will be the best opportunity to date for radar observations of this asteroid and we hope to obtain detailed images.
‘The images should be excellent for obtaining a detailed 3D model.’
The next pass is predicted to be in 2093.
Nasa’s statement comes just day after experts at the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in Konigsberg, Russia, published a video tracking the path of Phaethon.
The video explains that the asteroid’s unusual orbit will see it pass closer to the sun than any other named asteroid.
3200 Phaethon has puzzled scientists because it has features of both an asteroid and a comet.
The asteroid is named after the son of the Greek sun god Helios ‘Phaethon’ because it passes so close to the sun. Legend claims the young demi-god almost destroyed Earth by stealing his father’s (bottom right) chariot (top of image) and scorching Earth with the sun (top left)
NASA’S PLANETARY DEFENSE SYSTEM
During a recent pass of another asteroid, Nasa used its international network of observatories to recover, track and characterise asteroid 2012 TC4.
As it started to approach Earth in the coming months, large telescopes were used to detect it and establish the asteroid’s precise trajectory.
The new observations have helped refine knowledge about its orbit, narrowing the uncertainty about how far it will be from Earth in future passes.
In one of its previous close encounters with Earth, scientists spotted dust streaming from the space rock that resembles the melting ice tails seen tailing most comets.
But Phaethon’s orbit puts its origins in a region between Mars and Jupiter where asteroids commonly originate.
Typically, icy comets come from colder regions of space beyond Neptune.
In a statement, Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University said: ‘Apparently, this asteroid was once a much bigger object.
‘But its many approaches to the sun have caused it to crumble into smaller pieces which eventually formed this meteor shower.
‘If so, the asteroid itself could be the residue of a comet nucleus.
‘The asteroid’s extremely elongated orbit, thanks to which it sometimes gets to the Sun closer than Mercury and it sometimes moves away farther than Mars, is another argument in favour of this theory.’