Millions of years ago, the dinosaurs went extinct due to an asteroid hitting Earth. Could humans be next? At the end of last year, an asteroid classified as “Potentially Hazardous” came near Earth. However, it may not be as dangerous as this classification implies.
In December, 2017, the asteroid, which was called (3200) Phaethon passed by Earth. The asteroid had a diameter of about five miles. It was first discovered by scientists in 1983. Its orbit is eccentric, which means that it varies, and it comes near our own orbit, which led to it being classified as a “Potentially Hazardous Asteroid.”
A lot of times when an asteroid passes by Earth people say it will crash into us and bring the apocalypse, but that has not yet happened . The closest (3200) Phaethon came to Earth on this pass was 6,500,000 miles, which is approximately one fifth of the distance between Earth and Mars.
The next time (3200) Phaethon will come any closer to Earth will be in 2093. By that time, it will pass 1,850,000 miles from Earth. For comparison, this is about seven times farther away than our moon.
According to Matthew Holman, Interim Director of the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center, “[Potentially Hazardous Asteroid] is not a very good term because it implies that things are going to come crashing into us right away,” he explained. “It’s over long periods of time—basically, this is more of a plausibility thing.”
What this means is that since asteroids’ orbits change over long periods of time—sometimes thousands of years—potentially hazardous asteroids could eventually wind up hitting Earth.
Although this asteroid didn’t hit Earth this time, asteroids have hit Earth before, and they almost definitely will again. Astronomers continue to study asteroids and their orbits to identify when one might hit Earth. While (3200) Phaethon won’t crash into Earth anytime soon, it is almost certain that someday we will have another asteroid hit our planet and cause mass destruction again.