Thursday 15 April 2021

Asteroid 2021 GW4 passes the Earth.

Asteroid 2021 GW4 passed by the Earth at a distance of about 26 200 km (0.07 times the average distance between the Earth and the Moon, or 0.02% of the distance between the Earth and the Sun, and about 9500 km closer to the Earth than satellites in geostationary orbits), slightly after 1.00 pm GMT on Monday 12 April 2021. There was no danger of the asteroid hitting us, though were it to do so it would not have presented a significant threat. 2021 GW4 has an estimated equivalent diameter of 2-8 m (i.e. it is estimated that a spherical object with the same volume would be 2-8 m in diameter), and an object of this size would be expected to explode in an airburst (an explosion caused by superheating from friction with the Earth's atmosphere, which is greater than that caused by simply falling, due to the orbital momentum of the asteroid) more than 35 km above the ground, with only fragmentary material reaching the Earth's surface.

180 second image of 2021 GW4 taken with the Elena Planetwave 17" Telescope at Ceccano in Italy on 12 April 2021. The asteroid is the small point at the centre of the image, indicated by the white arrow, the longer lines are stars, their elongation being caused by the telescope tracking the asteroid over the length of the exposure. Gianluca Masi/Virtual Telescope.

2021 GW4 was discovered on 8 April 2021 (four days before its closest approach to the Earth) by the University of Arizona's Mt. Lemmon Survey at the Steward Observatory on Mount Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. The designation 2021 GW4 implies that the asteroid was the 122nd object (asteroid W4 - in numbering asteroids the letters A-Z, excluding I, are assigned numbers from 1 to 25, with a number added to the end each time the alphabet is ended, so that A = 1, A1 = 26, A2 = 51, etc., which means that W4 = (4 x 25) + 22 = 122) discovered in the first half of April 2021 (period 2021 G - the year being split into 24 half-months represented by the letters A-Y, with I being excluded).

The relative positions of 2021 GW4 and the Earth on 12 April 2021. JPL Small Body Database.

2021 GW4 has a 678 day (1.86 year) orbital period, with an elliptical orbit tilted at an angle of 0.74° to the plain of the Solar System which takes in to 0.98 AU from the Sun (98% of the distance at which the Earth orbits the Sun) and out to 2.04 AU (204% of the distance at which the Earth orbits the Sun, and motre than the distance at which the planet Mars orbits the Sun). It is therefore classed as an Apollo Group Asteroid (an asteroid that is on average further from the Sun than the Earth, but which does get closer). This means that 2021 GW4 has occasional close encounters with the Earth, with the last thought to have happened in April 2008 and the next predicted in March 2026.

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