After being damaged by Hurricane Maria, the famous Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico was compromised for several months. As soon as it resumed operations, it was used to take pictures of an asteroid that is worryingly close to Earth.
This asteroid, named 3200 Phaethon, has been classified as a “potentially hazardous object” by astronomers. This means that it has a diameter greater than 500 feet and is less than 4.6 million miles away from our planet. There is no need for alarm, however. Phaeton will definitely not be striking Earth anytime soon. It may do so at some point in the future, but that is unlikely. Astronomer Bill Harwood says that it would probably take thousands of years before Phaeton actually hits us if it ever does.
This is the nearest the asteroid has ever come to Earth. The next time it comes this close will be around A.D. 2093, so this was a great opportunity to study its features. The Arecibo telescope was repaired just in time to make these observations.
Using Arecibo, astronomers found that 3200 Phaethon has a previously unknown dark spot on it. They believe the spot may be a crater. They also discovered that Phaethon is much bigger than they had previously thought; it has a diameter of 3.6 miles. They drew comparisons between Phaethon and another asteroid called Bennu. Phaethon has about the same shape as Bennu but is much more massive.
Scientists do not yet know the origin of 3200 Phaeton. They hypothesize that it may have been a comet in the past before it came to reside in the inner solar system.
The Arecibo Observatory was built in the 1960s and has been used ever since to help scientists study asteroids. The telescope is one of the largest in the world and is an invaluable tool for astronomers from around the globe. It is essential for discovering bodies that might threaten Earth in the future.