Every so often, asteroids and other large pieces of space rock and junk come very close to Earth, but fortunately, many of them don’t collide. Most smaller objects get burned up in the atmosphere, but larger objects could mean distaster.
On Christmas Eve day, NASA observed a 3,600-mile-wide asteroid named 2003 SD220 as it passed within 6.8 million miles of Earth. Seeing as how that’s such a long distance, it shouldn’t be much of a problem, but it’s not this specific event that has scientists on their toes; it’s the fact that it’ll be coming back in the future.
Below, you can see images of the Christmas Eve asteroid, which were taken by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California:
"The radar images data suggest that asteroid 2003 SD220 is highly elongated and at least 3,600 feet [1,100 meters] in length," said Lance Benner of JPL, who leads NASA's asteroid radar research program. "The data acquired during this pass of the asteroid will help us plan for radar imaging during its upcoming closer approach in 2018."
NASA says that this same asteroid will come even closer to Earth in 2018 – 1.8 million miles away, and that in 2070, the asteroid will come at least 1.7 million miles near Earth. Fortunately, in all of these events, the asteroid will pass safely without any collisions.
In comparison, the Moon is 238,900 miles away from the Earth, or one lunar distance.
"There is no cause for concern over the upcoming flyby of asteroid 2003 SD220 this Christmas Eve," said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA's Center for NEO Studies at JPL. "The closest this object will come to Santa and his eight tiny reindeer is about 28 times the distance between Earth and the moon."
A large space rock recently passed the Earth on Halloween of this year too, which scientists also observed up close. Unlike this week’s asteroid, which was significantly further away, the Halloween asteroid passed much closer, at just under 311,000 miles away from Earth.