A giant near-Earth asteroid measuring 4.4 km wide named “Florence” just whizzed by earth last weekend. The space rock is so large; it was accompanied on its journey by two moons. Luckily it missed our planet by several million kilometers or 18 Earth-Moon distances as it moved through the constellations Piscis Austrinus, Capricornus, Aquarius, and Delphinus.
The last time Florence (also known as 3122 Florence) got this close was in 1890, based on a reconstruction of its historical orbit. It was officially discovered in 1981 when astronomer Schelte “Bobby” Bus spotted it from Australia’s Aiding Spring observatory. The asteroid was named after the iconic nurse, Florence Nightingale.
“While many known asteroids have passed by closer to Earth than Florence will on September 1, all of those were estimated to be smaller,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Florence is the largest asteroid to pass by our planet this close since the NASA program to detect and track near-Earth asteroids began.”
This happening has many benefits for NASA scientists; such a proximity provides an opportunity to study Florence up close. One plan is to use the asteroid as a target for ground-based radar observations. This imaging will take place at NASA’s Goldstone Solar System Radar in California and the National Science Foundation’s Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
Whatever they gain from these observations should reveal the real size of Florence and possibly some surface details of about 30 feet.
If an asteroid the size of Florence were to hit the Earth at the speed of the meteor that blew up over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013, it would have catastrophic effects for Earth’s atmosphere and ecosystems. But, we won’t have to worry about that since the next time Florence passes earth that close, the year will be 2500.
Will another asteroid threaten earth?
With this is mind, there are still allegedly, many more space rocks out in the nether that could pose a legitimate risk to humanity. Professor Alan Fitzsimmons, from Queen’s University Belfast’s Astrophysics Research Centre, stated to Express that another asteroid would “100 per cent” hit earth in the future.
“The dinosaur killer was so large, and those guys are easy to spot half way across the solar system with the current generation of telescopes. We know where those guys are, and we know they’re not coming anywhere near us in the near future. We shouldn’t think of going the way of the dinosaurs, that’s almost certainly not going to happen. But we may well still be taken by surprise by one of these smaller impacts such as Chelyabinsk or even Tunguska, so we have to be prepared for that eventuality,” he said to the news outlet.
Protecting us from future asteroids isn’t a major concern for powers that be on earth, right now the main method of defense is the use of rockets to knock asteroids off their course. Fitzsimmons thinks we need more.
“We’ve never tried to move an asteroid and change its path around the sun. And until we do that, there is a big question mark on our ability to protect people in the future,” he said.