Officially known as Asteroid 2003 SD220, the unusually shaped heavenly object flew in a near-Earth orbit in the early hours of this morning perfectly showing its hippo-like curves to astronomers. Dubbed ‘hippopotamus wading in a river’ by NASA scientists, the asteroid is a colossal 1.6km long and made its closest approach for more than 400 years. NASA’s ultra-powerful space telescopes based in California, West Virginia and Puerto Rico collected a series of images of the asteroid spinning on it abnormal rotation.
Scientists said it spins like “a poorly thrown football” and takes 12 days to complete one rotation which is unusual for objects flying so close to Earth.
Asteroid 2003 SD220 zoomed past Earth at just 2.9million kilometres away, less than eight times the distance of the moon away at just after 1am GMT on Saturday.
Mars, our nearest planet, is 55million kilometres away showing just how close the asteroid came to slamming into the Earth.
NASA have said they are keeping an eye on the asteroid as it orbits the Sun with calculations showing it will return closer next time it comes past Earth.
After travelling deep into space the hippo asteroid will make another near-Earth pass in 2070.
Astrophysicist Lance Benner from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory based at the California Institute of Technology said the remarkable images will help scientists unlock the secrets of the origins of the universe.
He said: “The radar images achieve an unprecedented level of detail and are comparable to those obtained from a spacecraft flyby.
“The most conspicuous surface feature is a prominent ridge that appears to wrap partway around the asteroid near one end.
“The ridge extends about 330 feet [100 meters] above the surrounding terrain.
“Numerous small bright spots are visible in the data and may be reflections from boulders.
“The images also show a cluster of dark, circular features near the right edge that may be craters.”
The images are more than 20 times clearer than photos taken just three years ago when the asteroid last passed Earth at a further distance away.
Dr Edward Rivera-Valentin added the more detailed images will help astronomers better understand how asteroids were formed.
He said: “The new details we’ve uncovered, all the way down to 2003 SD220’s geology, will let us reconstruct its shape and rotation state.
“Detailed shape reconstruction lets us better understand how these small bodies formed and evolved over time.”