A huge asteroid gets a little close on its flyby—but it's okay; it's wearing a mask.

2020 seems to have crammed several years of events into its opening months. As one Twitter user put it, "2020 is what 2012 tried so hard to be." But here's the good news:

Earth will not be hit by an asteroid the size of the National Mall on April 29!

Even amidst lockdown conditions, scientists from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico have been monitoring near-Earth objects while donning medical masks and practicing social distancing. One such object is a mile-long asteroid named 1998 OR2, the orbit of which will approach Earth's orbit 12 times this century. They've tracked it for 20 years and classified it as "potentially hazardous" because of its massive size and comparatively close orbit. (Note that "close" to astronomers means something else—even on this particularly close pass, 1998 OR2 will only come within 3.9 million miles from Earth, or 16 times the average distance between the Earth and the Moon.)

The Arecibo Observatory's radio telescope in Puerto Rico, pic courtesy Arecibo Observatory, University of Central Florida.


A Masked Visitor

Managed by the University of Central Florida and supported by NASA's Near-Earth Object Observations Program, the Arecibo Observatory runs a massive radio telescope 24 hours a day. The thing is accurate—not only can they accurately predict the trajectories of far-flung asteroids through all weather, but they've imaged the surface of 1998 OR2. 

Wonder how you put on a mask without hands. Pic courtesy Arecibo Observatory, University of Central Florida.

In a statement, the head of Planetary Radar at Arecibo Observatory, Anne Virkki, said:

"The small-scale topographic features such as hills and ridges on one end of asteroid 1998 OR2 are fascinating scientifically. But since we are all thinking about COVID-19 these features make it look like 1998 OR2 remembered to wear a mask."

Not Doomsday

Fun fact: the Arecibo Observatory was featured in the 1995 James Bond film Goldeneye starring Pierce Brosnan, where it was depicted as a secret antenna cradle in Cuba that controlled the Goldeneye satellite superweapon that threatened the planet. But the real Arecibo Observatory heralds no such doom this month. When the asteroid was first discovered in 1998, NASA warned that it was "large enough to cause global effects" if it ever struck the Earth, but the rock has kept its social distance for 20-plus years, and projections show it will continue to do so.

james bond
Also featured as a level in the hit Nintendo 64 game "Goldeneye". Pics courtesy IMDb.

“Although this asteroid is not projected to impact Earth, it is important to understand the characteristics of these types of objects to improve impact-risk mitigation technologies,” says Virkki.

“The radar measurements allow us to know more precisely where the asteroid will be in the future, including its future close approaches to Earth,” says Flaviane Venditti, a research scientist at Arecibo. “In 2079, asteroid 1998 OR2 will pass Earth about 3.5 times closer than it will this year, so it is important to know its orbit precisely.”

You Can See It

The asteroid won't be visible to the naked eye, but interested folks can tune in at-home to a free webcast from the Virtual Telescope Project to see the asteroid zoom by live. The webcast starts at 2:30 p.m. EDT on April 29.

Weather-permitting, the asteroid will be visible with binoculars and small telescopes. Cunning asteroid-watchers can find out how to spot it through resources like The Sky Live.

Does it look like a mask to you? Do you think it's courteous or mocking that the asteroid put on a mask to visit Earth? Weigh in with a comment!