A large asteroid roughly the size of 16 adult humpback whales is set to pass the Earth on Friday, according to NASA's asteroid tracker.
The asteroid in question has been designated 367789 (2011 AG5), according to the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
This asteroid in question is considered potentially hazardous and there were fears that it could impact the Earth sometime between 2040 and 2047, though later observations found that this was highly unlikely.
Huge asteroid approaching the Earth
The massive asteroid 367789 (2011 AG5) is estimated by NASA to have a diameter as much as 250 meters.
For context, the average adult humpback whale is as much as 16 meters long. This means that the asteroid could be as much as just under 16 humpback whales in length, if they're stretched out mouth to tail.
As is the case with most massive cetaceans, humpback whales are also incredibly heavy, weighing around 40,000 kilograms. Altogether, 16 humpback whales would weigh around 640,000 kilograms.
While it isn't clear how much asteroid 367789 (2011 AG5) weighs, it's probably a little bit more than all these humpback whales put together.
But what about speed?
The average humpback whale has a swimming speed of around 27 kilometers per hour.
Asteroid 367789 (2011 AG5), however, is heading towards Earth through space at a speed of around 9.92 kilometers per second, or 35,712 kilometers per hour.
In other words, it's around 1,322 times faster than a humpback whale.
Is an asteroid going to hit Earth in 2023?
In the past, people chased whales across the seas. Stories like Moby Dick helped embody the struggle between man, small and insignificant amid the great Earth-spanning waves, and the massive leviathans known as whales.
Indeed, many a sailor have been terrified at the possibility of encountering a whale.
Now, people are also afraid of asteroid impacts. But don't worry, this asteroid isn't going to hit the Earth – at least not now.
Asteroid 367789 (2011 AG5) is set to make its flyby past the Earth on Friday, February 3, 2023 at a distance of around 1.8 million kilometers away.
Now, on a cosmic level, that is pretty close. This is especially true with this asteroid, which has been designated potentially hazardous. As an Apollo-class asteroid, 3667789 (2011 AG5) usually orbits the Sun outside Earth's own orbit, occasionally crossing over as its own orbit overlaps with Earth's orbit.
This is why there were some fears it could impact the Earth – though NASA calculations have seemingly assuaged these fears for now.
Consider the Moon, which orbits the Earth at an average distance of 384,000 kilometers – much closer than this asteroid.
And that's a good thing because this asteroid would certainly be cause for major concern if an impact did happen.
According to research from the Davidson Institute of Science, the educational arm of Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science, an asteroid 140 meters in diameter or more would release an amount of energy at least a thousand times greater than that released by the first atomic bomb if it impacted Earth.
An even larger asteroid that's over 300 meters wide – like the Apophis asteroid – could destroy an entire continent. An asteroid over a kilometer in width – like asteroid 138971 (2001 CB21), which passed the Earth in early March 2022 – could trigger a worldwide cataclysm.
Asteroid 3667789 (2011 AG5) is large enough that it could likely cause serious damage if it struck.
But will an asteroid actually hit the Earth in 2023? It's possible. After all, two asteroids hit the Earth last year.
Back in March 2022, a small asteroid around half the size of a giraffe known as 2022 EB5 hit the Earth just hours after its discovery. But given how small it was, it didn't exactly result in any damage.
More recently, in late November 2022, tiny asteroid 2022 WJ1 harmlessly exploded into fragments that scattered around Lake Ontario. NASA had predicted that this small meter-long asteroid would impact this location and knew there wouldn't be any harm from it.
When is the next asteroid predicted to hit the Earth?
Thankfully, not for a very long time – at least not one of the big ones.
NASA has checked the numbers. According to them, Earth, and its whales, are safe from any catastrophic asteroid impacts for the next century, meaning no asteroid-induced Armageddon is on its way.
Do we have any way to stop an asteroid from hitting the Earth?
We just might, thanks to the hard work of scientists around the world.
The field of planetary defense is specifically organized to find ways of keeping the Earth safe from asteroids and scientists at NASA and across the globe are hard at work trying to do just that.
Most notably, this has involved pioneering the exciting technique of asteroid deflection, which uses kinetic energy through vehicular collision to ever so slightly change an asteroid's orbital path, meaning it would, in theory, no longer be set to crash into Earth but instead fly past it.
In layman's terms, NASA decided to make a spacecraft punch an asteroid to make it move out of the way.
In fact, that is exactly what recently happened in September in NASA's landmark Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) Mission, which tested out this theory on a faraway asteroid Dimorphous in the Didymous system.
And according to the results, the DART Mission was a success, managing to alter the asteroid's orbit.
And NASA isn't alone in this either. China is also getting ready to test out its own asteroid deflection mission, set to launch in 2025.
And with scientists discovering more asteroids and getting a better picture of our many rocky neighbors in space – such as the asteroid that recently photobombed the Hubble Space Telescope – further advances should keep coming.
All in all, it seems that humanity is working on building the arsenal it needs to tame the asteroid menace lying in space, the final frontier.