'Potentially hazardous' asteroid worth nearly $5 billion will enter Earth’s orbit next week, NASA says

An artist's impression of a distant asteroid approaching Earth. (Image credit: Erik Simonsen via Getty Images)

Next week, NASA predicts that a massive, "possibly dangerous" space rock larger than the Eiffel Tower will approach our atmosphere.

This 1,082-foot-long (330-meter-long) egg-shaped asteroid, known as 4660 Nereus, will enter Earth's orbit on Saturday, December 11, traveling at 14,700 mph (23,700 km/h). It's good news for our weekend plans that the asteroid won't hit us, but even if it does, we'll be closer to it than we've been in 20 years.

In terms of distance, Nereus will be around 2.4 million miles distant (3.86 million kilometers), which is nearly 10 times the distance between Earth and the moon. This may seem like a huge distance, but it's a walk in the park in the scheme of things.

"NASA defines Near-Earth object" and "possibly dangerous" space objects as any item that comes within 120 million miles (193 million kilometers) of Earth and any fast-moving object within 4.65 million miles (7.5 million kilometers). As soon as an object is tagged, astronomers keep a tight eye on it to see whether it deviates from its anticipated path and heads toward Earth.

Nearly every ten years, Nereus comes within 1,822 million miles of our planet's surface, according to its 1.82-year orbital period. When NASA and the Japanese space agency JAXA first explored retrieving a sample from Nereus using the Hayabusa mission, they opted for a different asteroid (25143 Itokawa) instead due to its frequent visits to our solar system.

In 2031 and 2050, NASA predicts that Nereus will make its next near encounters to Earth. It will be a tantalizingly near encounter when Nereus comes within 0.74 million miles (1.2 million kilometers) of Earth on February 14, 2060. In other words, the mineral-rich space asteroid will be three moons away from Earth.

In addition to NASA's future robotic mission, Nereus is also an attractive target for space mining. According to the database Asterank, which monitors more than 600,000 asteroids, nickel, iron, and cobalt minerals on the asteroid are valued at about $4.71 billion in total.

If an asteroid is discovered to be on a collision course with Earth, space authorities are working on a plan. On November 23, NASA launched a spacecraft as part of its Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission to drive an asteroid off track. In the early phases of their asteroid-ramming operation, China proposes to use 23 of its Long March 5 rockets to hit Bennu and deflect it from a possibly devastating collision with Earth.

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