There are several reasons to watch the sky the night before Christmas. Many people, including NORAD, will be watching for a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer. Others will doubtlessly be on the lookout for aliens on a holiday vacation. However, NASA scientists will have their eyes on the skies on Christmas Eve morning as an asteroid zips past Earth.
Asteroid 2016 TR54 will fly by Earth on the morning of Christmas Eve. It’ll be in our skies at around 1:30 am Eastern Time. According to NASA, the asteroid is about 741 feet in diameter. They’ve classified it as a Near-Earth Object and noted that it is traveling at about 35,000 miles an hour.
Christmas Eve Asteroid: What to Know
There’s no need to worry about the asteroid ruining your Christmas Eve plans or knocking Santa off-course. In fact, we won’t even be able to see 2016 TR54 without a powerful telescope. It’ll pass about four million miles away from our spinning blue marble. To put that into perspective, the moon is about 239,000 miles away.
You might be wondering why NASA would call the asteroid a Near-Earth Object if it’s that far away. Well, space is kind of like Texas in that everything is bigger out there. NASA classifies anything that comes within 120 million miles of our water-covered rock an NEO. So, near is a very relative term here. To further highlight the scale that NASA uses, they classify the Christmas Eve asteroid, which has a diameter equal to the length of two football fields. as “small to average.”
NASA Working on Redirecting Asteroids
The asteroid that passes by on Christmas Eve doesn’t pose a threat. However, that’s not true for all Near Earth Objects. With that in mind, NASA developed a way to nudge objects traveling through space to keep them off of a collision course with us.
In November, NASA launched the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). The agency planned to send a kinetic impactor into space to change the course of an already-safe asteroid. However, we don’t know if their plan worked, yet. The craft will travel through space for about a year before reaching its destination. So, we should know if it is possible for a spacecraft to change the trajectory of an asteroid by next Christmas Eve.
In a 2019 press release, Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist and DART team member said that what they were testing wasn’t an eleventh-hour earth-saving strategy like the movie Armageddon. Instead, she said, “This is something you would do 5, 10, 15, 20 years in advance.” Additionally, she noted that DART would “gently nudge an asteroid so it just sails merrily on its way and doesn’t impact the Earth.”