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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher March 5, 2020

Asteroid ‘on approach’ to Earth will miss by 3.9 million miles

If Your Time is short

  • NASA is tracking an asteroid that could be as much as 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) in diameter that is expected to cross the Earth’s orbital path on April 29, 2020.

  • The asteroid is “large enough to cause global effects” if it hit Earth — but it “will safely pass Earth by 3.9 million miles,” NASA says.

 

An article shared on Facebook suggested that an asteroid on its way toward Earth could be cataclysmic.

"Asteroid warning: NASA tracks a 4KM killer rock on approach  — Could end human civilisation," reads the headline.

The headline was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The article is by the Daily Express, a British newspaper. It quotes NASA as saying the asteroid, 1998 OR2, will make a "close approach" to Earth on April 29, 2020.

But later, the article essentially contradicts the headline, saying "close" means within 3.9 million miles.

Yeah, not so close.

NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies in Pasadena, Calif., which computes asteroid and comet orbits and their odds of Earth impact, is tracking 1998 OR2. It estimates the asteroid is up to 4.1 kilometers in diameter, or 2.5 miles.

If your memories of astronomy class are hazy, remember that an asteroid is a rocky body orbiting the Sun, left over from the formation of the solar system more than 4 billion years ago. Asteroids range in size from small boulders to hundreds of miles in diameter. Usually, they are too small to survive the passage through Earth’s atmosphere. When these burn up on their descent, they leave a beautiful trail of light known as a meteor or "shooting star." 

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But larger asteroids have crashed into Earth and created craters, such as a site off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, buried by ocean sediments today. It "is believed to be a record of the event that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago," according to NASA.

NASA announced its discovery of 1998 OR2 and another asteroid, 1998 OH, in August 1998. 

The space agency said both asteroids "cross Earth's orbital path" and are "large enough to cause global effects if one impacted Earth." But it said they show "no signs of coming dangerously close to Earth within at least the next several decades."

On March 4, 2020, the center posted this tweet

"On April 29, asteroid 1998 OR2 will safely pass Earth by 3.9 million miles/6.2 million km. A @Daily_Express article implying there is a ‘warning’ about this asteroid is false. A complete listing of all asteroid passes is always public at http://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/ca. Carry on!"

The center’s directorr, Paul Chodas, told us by email: "We have been tracking this asteroid for decades, and we have lots of data! But, there is no chance at all that this asteroid can impact!"

Our ruling

Suggesting imminent danger, the headline of an article shared on Facebook claimed that NASA is tracking a 2.5-mile-wide asteroid approaching Earth that "could end human civilisation."

An asteroid "large enough to cause global effects" if it hit Earth is expected to cross Earth’s orbital path on April 29, 2020. But it "will safely pass Earth by 3.9 million miles," says NASA, which called the headline false.

That’s our ruling — False.

Our Sources

Daily Express, "Asteroid warning: NASA tracks a 4KM killer rock on approach - Could end human civilisation," March 4, 2020

Twitter, Center for Near Earth Object Studies tweet, March 4, 2020

Email, Veronica McGregor, digital news and media manager, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, March 4, 2020

Email, Center for Near Earth Object Studies spokesman David Agle, March 4, 2020

Email, NASA Center for Near Earth Object Studies director Paul Chodas, March 5, 2020

NASA Center for Near Earth Object Studies, "NEO Earth Close Approaches," accessed March 4, 2020


NASA, news release, Aug. 5, 1998

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Asteroid ‘on approach’ to Earth will miss by 3.9 million miles

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