Come Christmas Eve, you can expect a visit from asteroid 2003 SD220. Also called asteroid 163899, this massive space rock will embark on its closest approach to our planet on December 24, making the holidays all the more special for astronomy enthusiasts across the world. However, don’t fret just yet. As NASA has confirmed, the celestial body will be present at a distance of over 6,787,600 miles (around 11 million km) from Earth’s surface. So, reports of possible collision or even earthquakes are completely unfounded.
Discovered back in 2003, as part of the Lowell Observatory Near-Earth Object Search (LONEOS) program in Arizona, the asteroid is well known among scientists for its remarkable size. Although previously believed to be around 0.7 to 1.5 miles (approx. 1.1 to 2.5 km) in length, recent sightings from Peurto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory suggest that it is nearly 1.25 miles (about 2 km) long. According to researchers, this giant space rock moves at a relatively slow speed of around 17.5 miles per second, which makes each rotation last up to one week.
At its closest, the chicken finger-shaped asteroid will be present at nearly 28 times the moon’s distance from Earth. Consequently, only professional and advance-level amateur astronomers would be able to view it. What is more, the event will offer scientists an excellent opportunity to capture optical images of this celestial body, for further analysis. From December 3 to 17, researchers at Arecibo Observatory are going to study the asteroid’s path, using special radio telescopes. California’s Goldstone Antenna is also observing the space rock from December 5 to 20.
According to NASA’s Near-Earth Object Human Space Flight Accessible Targets Study (NHATS) program, asteroid 163899’s next visit will likely occur in the year 2018. Analysis of its orbit has revealed that the object will not pose any threat to our planet for the coming two centuries. Furthermore, it is currently being studied as a potential location for future human spaceflight rendezvous missions. Lance Benner of NASA said:
2003 SD220 is on NASA’s NHATS list of potential human-accessible targets, so observations of this object are particularly important… The 2015 apparition is the first of five encounters by this object in the next 12 years when it will be close enough for a radar detection.