A small asteroid came closer to Earth than even SpaceX Starlink satellites

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Asteroid approaching Earth, artwork

Close enough for a high-five…


NASA

An asteroid set a new mark on Friday for the closest pass by our planet without actually impacting.

The space rock was discovered with the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System, or ATLAS, run by NASA and the University of Hawaii. It has been designated 2020 VT4, and it came within just 240 miles (386 kilometers) of Earth’s surface on Friday. That’s closer even than objects in low-earth orbit including the International Space Station and SpaceX’s Starlink broadband constellation.

While this is much closer than the record set back in August when asteroid 2020 QG flew by at a distance of 1,830 miles (2,950 kilometers), it’s not unusual for asteroids to get so up in our planetary grill. 

Plenty of bits of space dust and larger rocks make it all the way to the ground in the form of meteorites. One of the larger ones in memory caused a stir when it collided with the atmosphere over Russia in 2013. That one was not seen by astronomers beforehand, but 2018 LA was sighted just before hitting us five years later. It’s thought that pieces of that asteroid made it to the ground in Africa. There have even been incidents of asteroids “bouncing off the atmosphere” and heading back out to deep space.

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It’s not that we’re suddenly getting attacked by asteroids. Rather, improvements in technology and observations have allowed astronomers to spot more and smaller asteroids sneaking ever closer by our planet. 

Still, it’s a little unnerving to have direct evidence of space rocks whipping by us within just a few miles of the altitude where the International Space Station orbits, and just as a new crew is en route inside a shiny Crew Dragon spaceship. 

So keep an eye to the skies — or all around you if you happen to be in space already. 

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