Scientist Anne Virkki joked that the asteroid's appearance seemed to come at a timely moment amid the coronavirus pandemic

By Joelle Goldstein
April 24, 2020 03:13 PM
1998 OR2 Asteroid
Credit: Arecibo Observatory/NASA/NSF

An asteroid is expected to fly by Earth next week — and its appearance will certainly be one for the ages!

On April 29, a mile-long asteroid called 1998 OR2 will approach Earth, though it will not come close to hitting the planet, according to NASA Asteroid Watch.

However, in new photos taken by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the appearance of the asteroid inspired its team of scientists to say it “looks like it’s wearing a mask” as it nears Earth amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 2.7 million people worldwide and prompted many across the globe to wear masks themselves, as per CDC guidelines.

“The small-scale topographic features such as hills and ridges on one end of asteroid 1998 OR2 are fascinating scientifically,” Arecibo Observatory’s head of Planetary Radar, Anne Virkki, said in a statement. “But since we are all thinking about COVID-19 these features make it look like 1998 OR2 remembered to wear a mask.”

In a video on its Twitter account, NASA Asteroid Watch explained that it typically keeps “close watch” on near-Earth objects — defined as any object that can pass by Earth within 30 million miles — if they’re within five-million miles away.

According to the space agency, Asteroid 1998 OR2 is expected to pass by Earth at a distance of 3.9 million miles/6.2 million kilometers.

Though this may seem close, in actuality, it’s still incredibly far away as our moon is currently orbiting 238,900 million miles away from the planet, NASA explained.

Because of its safe distance, scientists have confirmed that this asteroid will not pose a threat to Earth, but will be useful for research purposes.

“Although this asteroid is not projected to impact Earth, it is important to understand the characteristics of these types of objects to improve impact-risk mitigation technologies,” Virkki said in the press release from the University of Central Florida. The university manages the National Science Foundation facility, whose team of experts monitors near-Earth asteroids .

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Flaviane Venditti, a research scientist at the observatory, added: “The radar measurements allow us to know more precisely where the asteroid will be in the future, including its future close approaches to Earth.”

“In 2079, asteroid 1998 OR2 will pass Earth about 3.5 times closer than it will this year, so it is important to know its orbit precisely,” Venditti continued.

The team of experts began monitoring the asteroid on April 13, according to the press release. Over a week and a half, they collected data until April 23 when it will no longer be visible from their facility, UCF said.

Despite not being able to see the asteroid, scientists expect it to make its closest approach to Earth — a whopping 16 times farther than the distance to the moon — on April 29, according to UCF.

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