The ‘potentially hazardous’ asteroid Phaeton 3200 will zoom past Earth tonight
There’s a three-mile-wide asteroid heading straight for Earth.
But don’t worry, because even though Nasa describes asteroid 3200 Phaeton as ‘potentially hazardous’ it will zoom harmlessly past our planet this evening.
This massive object causes the beautiful annual Geminids meteor shower, which hit its peak earlier this week when hundreds of shooting stars lit up the night sky.
Phaeton’s is due to come unusually close to our planet tonight, zooming by at a distance of about six million miles – 27 times the distance between the Earth and the moon.
The asteroid will reach the closest point of its journey past our planet at about 10pm British time and should be visible through a telescope, as long as you’re standing in a dark place away from the glare of city lights.
It’s our closest encounter with Phaeton since 1974. The next time it will brush by at such close quarters will be in 2093.
The asteroid is about half the size of Chicxulub, the rock which wiped out the dinosaurs, and has a very unusual orbit which causes it to pass closer to the sun than any other named asteroid.
Astronomers from the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University recently published a video which tracks the path of Phaethon.
In a statement, the uni wrote: ‘Apparently, this asteroid was once a much bigger object, but its many approaches to the Sun have caused it to crumble into smaller pieces which eventually formed this meteor shower.
‘If so, the asteroid itself could be the residue of a comet nucleus. The asteroid’s extremely elongated orbit, thanks to which it sometimes gets to the Sun closer than Mercury and it sometimes moves away farther than Mars, is another argument in favour of this theory.’
Nasa has admitted to being somewhat baffled by the asteroid, which is capable of producing the sort of meteor shower normally associated with comets.
The Geminids are the only meteor shower to be produced by an asteroid and it’s not entirely clear how this happened.
‘What it comes down to is that the Geminid parent object is a mystery,’ Nasa wrote.
The space rock is named after Phaethon, the son of the Greek sun god Helios.
Ancient myths told the story of how this rather insecure-sounding young god was challenged to prove he was related to Helios, who was said to pull the sun across the sky.
To prove his divine provenance, Phaethon decided to have a go in his dad’s chariot and was unable to control the horses, who then ran wild across the sky dragging the hot sun with them.
Humanity was almost destroyed in the subsequent chaos, which scorched the Earth, burned vast amounts of vegetation and created the great deserts of Africa.
The Earth was only spared when Zeus blasted the horses with a thunderbolt, killing Phaethon in the process.
Here’s what the Greek philosopher Plato wrote about the myth: ‘There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes.
‘There is a story that even you [Greeks] have preserved, that once upon a time, Phaethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father’s chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt.
‘Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals.’
We’re pleased to report that the real-life Phaethon will not plough into Earth meaning our species will live to fight another day.
Astronomers recently revealed that the first ‘alien’ asteroid to visit our solar system from deep space looked like a massive cigar.
But despite claims that it could be a spaceship sent by an extraterrestrial civilisation, observations indicate that the object is just a weirdly-shaped asteroid.
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