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Is this giant asteroid on course to obliterate Earth? An expert weighs in

NASA has classified Asteroid 2001 FO32 as a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid, but there’s probably no need to start the Doomsday prep just yet

It’s undeniable: 2020 was a pretty rocky year and, despite some glimmers of hope, 2021 hasn’t started out much better. We’re still locked down in the middle of a global pandemic, the government is more focused on cracking down on activists than solving the climate crisis they’re protesting, and – according to NASA – a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid is set to pass uncomfortably close to Earth.

Specifically, Asteroid 2001 FO32 will float past the planet on March 21. Moving at just under 77,000 miles per hour, and measuring around one kilometre in diameter, it will be the biggest and fastest known asteroid to pass so close in 2021. 

So, is it time to start digging the underground bunker, or should we give up completely and go to a quarantine rave (because who cares about COVID in the face of an extinction level event)? Neither, explains Alan Fitzsimmons, an astronomer and professor of astrophysics at Queen’s University Belfast.

“An impact of a small asteroid, say 200 to 300 metres across, could devastate a state or small country,” he says. “An asteroid one kilometre across or larger could produce climatic effects across the globe that could result in severe food shortages. Plus, of course, devastation close to the impact point.”

This doesn’t exactly sound reassuring, but Fitzsimmons adds that there’s no need to worry about Asteroid 2001 FO32. “The good thing is that, because of observations by many astronomers, we know it cannot hit us for at least the next 200 years,” he explains. While it will have close approaches in that time – such as on March 22, 2052 – these actually provide useful opportunities to study large, near-Earth asteroids and learn more about them, and, as Fitzsimmons says, “we can do so without worry”.

In fact, it seems like we’re relatively safe from asteroid threats for some time. According to Fitzsimmons: “NASA-funded searches have now discovered almost all of those larger asteroids and determined they are not a risk in the next couple of centuries.” Now, he adds, it’s important to focus on smaller asteroids “to discover them and find out where they are going”. Asteroids that stand a chance of passing through the atmosphere and hitting the ground pass us closer than the moon approximately every five to 10 years.

We can consider ourselves lucky that Asteroid 2001 FO32 will leave us unscathed on March 21, but what if you want to watch it fly by in the night sky? Unfortunately – “or fortunately,” Fitzsimmons notes – you won’t see much unless you have access to a decent telescope. “At closest approach it will still be two million kilometres from us and it will be 100,000 times fainter than the faintest stars you can see by eye.”

Because the asteroid is moving so fast, observers that do have telescopes may get the chance to detect its motion – mapped against distant stars – in real time.