'Potentially hazardous' asteroid to pass by Earth in December

Phaethon will be closest to Earth on Dec. 16, when it will be some 6.4 million miles away, according to NASA projections.
By Delila James | Dec 01, 2017
An asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon will be buzzing so close to Earth in mid-December that the three-mile-in-diameter space rock has been designated as "potentially hazardous" by the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center.

Phaethon will be closest to Earth on Dec. 16, when it will be some 6.4 million miles away, according to NASA projections. In comparison, the moon is an average 238,855 miles from Earth.

The asteroid has not been this close to Earth since Dec. 16, 1974, when it was about 5 million miles away. But Phaethon was not discovered until 1983, so no one was aware of its presence until then.

"The 2017 apparition is the closest to Earth since the asteroid's discovery, so it may be possible for optical observers to detect new activity," NASA said.

Phaethon is of particular interest because astronomers believe it to be the origin of the annual Geminds meteor shower in mid-December. It is not projected to be this close to Earth again until 2093, when it will be only 1.8 million miles away.

Scientists say Phaethon is not a cause for concern as a collision with Earth is highly unlikely.

"This object appears to be, at the moment, in a very stable orbit," says Michael Mendillo, a professor of astronomy at Boston University, in a report by TIME. "It's very predictable. If no other mass comes close to it, those predictions will be accurate for thousands of years."

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