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Named after Florence Nightingale (founder of modern nursing), this asteroid will meander through space at about 4.4 million miles from Earth according to NASA. So, why is NASA even talking about it? Besides thwarting the random Facebook posts that will be declaring the apocalypse is upon us, Florence is one of the biggest near-Earth asteroids out there.
Measuring nearly 3 miles in size, it’s a good idea to keep close tabs on it.
“While many known asteroids have passed by closer to Earth than Florence will on September 1, all of those were estimated to be smaller,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). “Florence is the largest asteroid to pass by our planet this close since the NASA program to detect and track near-Earth asteroids began.”
That program is called Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or NEOWISE. Since December 2013, NEOWISE has characterized 693 near-Earth objects. Both asteroids and comets. Only about 100 of them were unknown before 2013.
Here’s a slick video of NEOWISE data showing the near-Earth objects (green) around Earth (teal).
Florence is big and would cause one hell of a headache if it struck Earth, but it’s not even close to the biggest near-Earth object. The biggest, that we know about, is a chunk of ice and rock measuring close to 20 miles across called Ganymed. It’s named after the same Greek god as Jupiter’s moon Ganymede but uses the German spelling instead of English.
Ganymed was first discovered in 1924. And since then, scientists have nailed down its orbit. On October 13, 2024, Ganymed will pass within 34.7 million miles of Earth. It’s part of a group of asteroids known as Amor asteroids. They approach Earth’s orbit but never cross it.
As for Florence? Scientists at NASA’s in California and Puerto Rico will use massive radar telescopes to reveal surface details as small as 30 feet. Earth won’t see Florence cruise this close again until after the year 2500.
According to NASA, you can see the ninth magnitude asteroid later this month and in early September as it passes through the constellations Piscis Austrinus, Capricornus, Aquarius, and Delphinus. It won’t wow you like yesterday’s stunning total solar eclipse, but it makes for a fun target to hunt with your telescope.
You can keep tabs on all the near-Earth objects during their closest approach over at the CNEOS website. We’ll be averaging one chunk of ice and rock cruising near Earth for the rest of August.
Top image: The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico will use radar to learn more about Florence.