Planet Earth will have a terrifyingly close encounter with a three-mile-wide asteroid just over a week before Christmas.
A gigantic space rock called 3200 Phaethon is due to brush ‘quite close’ to our planet on December 17, Russian astronomers have revealed.
This huge asteroid is thought to cause the beautiful Geminids meteor shower which will take place between December 13 and 14, causing hundreds of bright meteors to illuminate the night sky as they burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
But NASA has also described it as a ‘potentially hazardous asteroid whose path misses Earth’s orbit by only 2 million miles‘ – which is tiny in galactic terms.
It’s about half the size of Chicxulub, the rock which wiped out the dinosaurs, and has a very unusual orbit which causes it to pass closer to the sun than any other named asteroid.
Astronomers from the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University have just published a video which tracks the path of Phaethon.
In a statement, the uni wrote: ‘Apparently, this asteroid was once a much bigger object, but its many approaches to the Sun have caused it to crumble into smaller pieces which eventually formed this meteor shower.
‘If so, the asteroid itself could be the residue of a comet nucleus. The asteroid’s extremely elongated orbit, thanks to which it sometimes gets to the Sun closer than Mercury and it sometimes moves away farther than Mars, is another argument in favour of this theory.’
Nasa has admitted to being somewhat baffled by the asteroid, which is capable of producing the sort of meteor shower normally associated with comets.
The Geminids are the only meteor shower to be produced by an asteroid and it’s not entirely clear how this happened.
‘What it comes down to is that the Geminid parent object is a mystery,’ Nasa wrote.
The space rock is named after Phaethon, the son of the Greek sun god Helios.
Ancient myths told the story of how this rather insecure-sounding young god was challenged to prove he was related to Helios, who was said to pull the sun across the sky.
To prove his divine provenance, Phaethon decided to have a go in his dad’s chariot and was unable to control the horses, who then ran wild across the sky dragging the hot sun with them.
Humanity was almost destroyed in the subsequent chaos, which scorched the Earth, burned vast amounts of vegetation and created the great deserts of Africa.
The Earth was only spared when Zeus blasted the horses with a thunderbolt, killing Phaethon in the process.
Here’s what the Greek philosopher Plato wrote about the myth: ‘There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes.
‘There is a story that even you [Greeks] have preserved, that once upon a time, Phaethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father’s chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt.
‘Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals.’
We’re pleased to report that the real-life Phaethon will not plough into Earth meaning our species will live to fight another day.
Astronomers recently revealed that the first ‘alien’ asteroid to visit our solar system from deep space looked like a massive cigar.