The approaching asteroid is hidden in the sun’s glare, which makes it difficult to follow.
A small asteroid is currently hurtling toward Earth. And while NASA says there is essentially no chance of impact, it could be a close shave.
Asteroid 2013 TX68 is expected to swing by our planet on March 5. It could pass at a distance of 9 million miles (14 million km), which is a comfortable 35 times farther than the moon. Or it could come as close as 11,000 miles (17,000 km). That’s about half the altitude that our geosynchronous satellites orbit (but it’s not expected that any satellites will be in danger).
The reason for the wide variance in estimates is, essentially, lack of data. The asteroid was discovered and last seen in 2013 by the Catalina Sky Survey. At the time, scientists were only able to gather data on it for three days before it passed in front of the sun and was lost in glare.
“While astronomers could determine an orbit for the asteroid, there was some uncertainty in the orbital parameters [or its specific flight trajectory],” says Patrick Taylor, an asteroid scientist at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Since then, Taylor says, the predictions on its path “have diverged a bit.”
“There could be an order of one million near-Earth asteroids around this size class—tens of meters in diameter—and we have only discovered 10,000 of all sizes,” Taylor says.
While scientists have eliminated any chance of a collision this time around, calculations projecting the asteroid’s future orbits show that when it makes its way back near Earth on September 28, 2017, it will have a very remote—one in 250 million—chance of hitting our planet. The odds are even lower in subsequent flybys through 2047. NASA officials believe that with future observations, these risks will likely be reduced even further. That’s exactly what has happened with other asteroids in the past too.