An asteroid will pass within 1 million miles of Earth on Wednesday, making it the closest encounter with a major solar system object so far this century.
Astronomers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said the asteroid, called 4179 Toutatis, travels in an eccentric orbit that takes it from inside Earth’s orbit to the main asteroid belt, a loose agglomeration of planetoids and boulders arranged in an orbit around the sun between Mars and Jupiter. It is the closest-known asteroid that crosses Earth’s orbit.
Toutatis, formerly called 1989 AC, was discovered in January 1989. An image of the asteroid — represented as a long streak — appeared on photographic plates taken on the Schmidt telescope in Chile.
Its discoverers named the asteroid after a Celtic/Gallic god whose name is invoked often in the well-known comic book series Les Aventures d’Asterix, set in ancient Gaul. Toutatis is the protector of Asterix and his compatriots, who fear nothing except that someday the sky may fall on their heads.