On Wednesday, December 12, the three-mile-long asteroid named “Toutatis” made its closest approach to earth. NASA scientists working at the Deep Space Network antenna in Goldstone, California were able to capture radar images of the object as it swung by. The images have been assembled into a video showing the asteroid as it tumbled past Earth.
Toutatis was only 6.9 million kilometers (4.3 million miles) from Earth at its closest approach, about 18 times the distance between the Earth and the moon. The radar images indicate that it is elongated and irregularly shaped, with ridges and possibly craters. Astronomers also stated there were some “interesting” bright glints in the images that could indicate surface boulders. The asteroid rotates very slowly, rotating every 5.4 days and precessing every 7.4 days. The images that make up the video were taken over the course of two days on Wednesday and Thursday.
The orbit of the asteroid is well understood, and the Earth was not in any danger. NASA detects and tracks asteroids and comets that pass close to Earth through the Near-Earth Object Observations Program, also known as “Spaceguard.” Over the next four centuries (the time in which the object’s motion can be accurately computed) there is no possibility of Toutatis hitting the Earth. In 2069, the asteroid will pass only 3 million kilometers (1.8 million miles) from Earth.