NASA has captured the highest-resolution images yet of a massive asteroid that skimmed past Earth earlier this month.
The huge space rock, known as 3200 Phaethon, made its closest approach to Earth on Dec 16 at about 6.4 million miles (10.3 million kilometers) away.
According to the space agency, this is the closest the asteroid will come to Earth until 2093.
NASA has captured the highest-resolution images yet of a massive asteroid that skimmed past Earth earlier this month. The huge space rock, known as 3200 Phaethon, made its closest approach to Earth on Dec 16 at about 6.4 million miles (10.3 million kilometers) away
The latest images were captured using Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory Planetary Radar, not long after the instrument returned to normal operation following Hurricane Maria.
In the images, the somewhat spherical object can be seen with a huge depression at the equator that’s thought to be at least several hundred meters large.
It also has a ‘conspicuous’ dark feature near one of the poles, NASA notes.
‘These new observations of Phaethon show it may be similar in shape to asteroid Bennu, the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft, but more than 1,000 Bennus could fit inside of Phaethon,’ said Patrick Taylor, a Universities Space Research Association (USRA), Columbia, Maryland, scientist and group leader for Planetary Radar at Arecibo Observatory.
‘The dark feature could be a crater or some other topographic depression that did not reflect the radar beam back to Earth.’
The new observations conducted from Dec 15-19 show Phaethon to be about 3.6 miles (6 kilometers) wide.
This means it’s larger than previously thought, by about .6 miles (1 kilometer).
It passed by Earth this month at about 27 times the distance between our planet and the moon.
Arecibo is the most powerful astronomical radar system on Earth, but suffered minor damage in the recent hurricane that struck Puerto Rico.
Now, it’s back up and running.
‘Arecibo is an important global asset, crucial for planetary defense work because of its unique capabilities,’ said Joan Schmelz of USRA and deputy director of Arecibo Observatory.
‘We have been working diligently to get it back up and running since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.’
At its closest approach, the asteroid is estimated to be around 6.4 million miles away from our planet – 27 times the distance between the Earth and the moon (stock image)
Before its approach, NASA revealed asteroid 3200 Phaethon is classed as ‘potentially hazardous.’
The latest approach is the closest the asteroid has been to Earth since December 16, 1974, when it was around 5 million miles away – although we were blissfully unaware at the time.
In a statement about the asteroid, which was first discovered in 1983, a spokesperson for Nasa said: ‘With a diameter of about 5km, Phaethon is the third largest near-Earth asteroid classified as “Potentially Hazardous”.’
The next pass is predicted to be in 2093 when it is expected to pass at just over 1.8 million miles (2.9 million kilometres) away.
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)
Earlier this month, 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.
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.’