An asteroid the size of the Empire State Building will zoom by Earth this weekend, according to NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory's asteroid tracker. Scientists predict the asteroid, which measures 1,100 feet (320 meters) in length, will be 3,160,000 miles from Earth during its closest approach on June 6.
For reference, Earth is about 239,000 miles from the moon, so this asteroid will pass about 13 times that distance away.
Asteroids are small, rocky objects that orbit the sun like planets but are much smaller, ranging in size from pebbles to hundreds of miles in diameter. Since 1998, NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office has tracked "potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that could approach the Earth."
Any asteroid larger than 492 feet (150 meters) that passes within 4.6 million miles of Earth is "termed a potentially hazardous object," according to NASA, and this Empire State Building-sized asteroid fits that bill.
But unlike in Hollywood movies, the office points out, "no government agency, national or international, has been tasked or accepted the responsibility" of stopping an object that's on a collision path with Earth.
Instead, NASA's Near-Earth Object Program staff focuses on tracking asteroids far in advance, because in order to deflect a potentially hazardous one, years or decades may be needed to knock it off its path and avoid a collision with Earth.
But some of how scientists do that is not all that far from the movies.
"In the rare case of a large threatening asteroid, nuclear explosions that could push or fragment the object might provide a sufficient response," the office explained on its website. "For the far more numerous asteroids that are smaller than a few hundred meters in diameter, if we have adequate early warning of several years to a decade, a weighted robotic spacecraft could be targeted to collide with the object, thereby modifying its velocity to nudge the trajectory just enough that the Earth impact would be avoided."
The solar system is full of asteroids, which outnumber comets 100 to 1, and it's common for them to zoom by Earth. For example, four smaller asteroids measuring between 97 and 110 feet — about the size of airplanes — are also expected to approach Earth today, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.