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Asteroid that looks like it’s wearing a face mask to pass by Earth

This range-Doppler radar image shows Asteroid 1998 OR2 passing through space on April 17.
This range-Doppler radar image shows Asteroid 1998 OR2 passing through space on April 17.The Arecibo Observatory

An asteroid that looks it’s wearing a face mask will whip past Earth during the dark hours of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

Scientists from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico shared images of the asteroid, named 52768 (1998 OR2), on Twitter after they had observed it getting closer to Earth.

“The small-scale topographic features such as hills and ridges on one end of asteroid 1998 OR2 are fascinating scientifically,” said Anne Virkki, head of Planetary Radar at the observatory, in a statement. “But since we are all thinking about COVID-19 these features make it look like 1998 OR2 remembered to wear a mask.”

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The asteroid was first discovered by NASA astronomers in 1998, and is the largest asteroid to pass by the Earth this year. Although it won’t be visible without a telescope, scientists said the asteroid will still be notably close to the Earth as it soars by.

“Its closest approach to the Earth would be about a thousand times larger than the Earth’s radius. Although it sounds as if this is very far, it is actually only 4 percent of our distance to the Sun, so this object is considered a ‘Near Earth Object',” said Avi Loeb, the chair of astronomy department at Harvard University.

Loeb said astronomers track Near Earth Objects like 1998 OR2 because they could cause a huge explosion if they ever crashed into Earth.

“For example, an impact of a large asteroid on New York City, such as the meteor that hit the unpopulated regions near Chelyabinsk in 2013 or Tunguska in 1908, could cause a larger death toll and economic damage than COVID-19,” Loeb said.

Scientists at the observatory said there should be no cause for concern as 1998 OR2 passes by Earth Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Their research shows that even at its closest point to the planet, the asteroid will still be 16 times farther away than the Earth’s distance to the moon.

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Caroline Enos can be reached at caroline.enos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineEnos.