Puerto Rico's newly functional Arecibo telescope has taken some incredible images of the asteroid, which flew by last week.
A gigantic asteroid capable of wiping out an entire city if it were to strike the Earth in exactly the right place just zoomed by alarmingly close to our planet recently, and the Arecibo Observatory Planetary Radar managed to capture some images of it. Asteroid 3200 Phaethon flew by the Earth on Dec. 16, and the images show it has a spherical shape with a large concavity near the edge of its body.
It is a staggering 3.6 miles in diameter, which is actually 0.6 miles larger than previous estimates had indicates. It’s so big that NASA has classified it as a “potentially hazardous” asteroid that would cause tremendous destruction were it to hit a populated area on Earth. By comparison, the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor that injured 1,500 people and damaged thousands of buildings was caused by an object that was just 20 meters in diameter.
The Arecibo Observatory has been an important tool for scientists around the globe, but due to the devastating of Hurricane Maria, it had been offline until recently. Watching near-Earth objects has become a key focus of NASA in recent years, and there is even a whole office dedicated to that purpose.
“These new observations of Phaethon show it may be similar in shape to asteroid Bennu, the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, but more than 1,000 Bennus could fit inside of Phaethon,” said Patrick Taylor, a Universities Space Research Association (USRA), Columbia, Maryland, scientist and group leader for Planetary Radar at Arecibo Observatory. “The dark feature could be a crater or some other topographic depression that did not reflect the radar beam back to Earth.”