According to previous analyzes, the chance of the object striking Earth was 1 in 70,000 between 2086 and 2101.
In early July, a team from the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), University of Hawaii, identified a new asteroid that could one day hit Earth.
Despite the difficulty of estimating the object’s trajectory, scientists at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico have discovered new information about it.
2020 NK1 measures approximately 488 meters in diameter. According to the researchers, its size makes it one of the main Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHO) tracked by NASA – this classification applies to asteroids over 152 meters in diameter at a distance of at least 8 million kilometers (5 million miles) from Earth’s orbit.
The probability that Earth would be hit by 2020 NK1 between the years 2086 and 2101 had been estimated as 1 in 70,000.
Before making all of these discoveries, scientists had to overcome yet another challenge: tropical storm Isaias, which interrupted the activities of the Arecibo Observatory for security reasons.
“Fortunately, the storm passed quickly without damage to the telescope or the radar system, and the maintenance and electronics teams were able to activate the telescope from hurricane lockdown in time for the observations,” said Sean Marshall, the scientist who led the study team. As soon as Isaias was gone, the asteroid became a priority.
Between July 30 and 31, scientists were able to observe the 2020 NK1 for two and a half hours – enough time to make accurate measurements of the object’s speed and distance from Earth. The team was also able to capture high-resolution images.
The object was seen as it passed within the observatory’s radar range. Fortunately, the new analyzes show that 2020 NK1 poses no danger to us – even in the future.
At its closest approach, the asteroid will reach 3.6 million kilometers (2.23 million miles) from Earth in 2043, equivalent to nine times the distance between Earth and the Moon.
“These measurements greatly improve our knowledge of 2020 NK1’s orbit and allow for predictions of its future whereabouts for decades to come,” said Patrick Taylor, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Texas, who participated in the observations.
For Anne Virkki, head of the Planetary Radar group at the Arecibo Observatory, this discovery is a major achievement for the institution. “This event was a great example of the important role that the Arecibo radar system plays in planetary science and planetary defense,” she said. “It shows that we have very quick response times and high-precision range, motion, and-size measurement capabilities, in spite of storms, the COVID-19 pandemic and earthquakes with which Puerto Rico has dealt with this year.”