Asteroid three miles wide harmlessly tumbles past Earth

NASA spacecraft in the interstellar space

Newscast Media HOUSTON, Texas—NASA has confirmed that the asteroid named Toutatis measuring 4.5 kilometers in length will be harmless, as the space rock tumbles past Earth.

“There is no danger of a collision with Earth,” says Lance Benner of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program. “At closest approach on Dec. 12th, asteroid 4179 Toutatis will be 7 million kilometers away or 18 times farther than the Moon.”

Asteroid Toutatis is well known to astronomers; it passes by Earth’s orbit every four years. It is one of the largest known potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs), and according to NASA, its orbit is inclined less than half-a-degree from Earth’s.

The asteroid is already remarkable for the way that it spins. Unlike planets and the vast majority of asteroids, which rotate in an orderly fashion around a single axis, Toutatis travels through space tumbling like a badly thrown football as shown below:

Simulation of the asteroid Toutatis tumbling in space. Courtesy video by NASA

“We already know that Toutatis will not hit Earth for hundreds of years,” says Benner. “These new observations will allow us to predict the asteroid’s trajectory even farther into the future.”

Benner and colleagues are particularly excited about a new digital imaging system at Goldstone that could reveal never-before-seen details on the asteroid’s surface.

“Using the new system, we can now image the asteroid’s surface with 2 to 5 times finer resolution than previous flybys,” he says. “We may we see something new on Toutatis.”