This article originally appeared on VICE India.
As we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic-hit planet, precautionary measures like wearing face masks, washing our hands and maintaining physical distance from other people have become the new norm. But it looks like we may not be the only ones afraid of catching the big bad coronavirus.
The 1998 OR2, an asteroid that was classified as a “Potentially Hazardous Object (PHO)”, whizzed past earth on Wednesday, April 29. This asteroid, which scientists have been monitoring since 1998, posed no real threat to our planet. However, some experts feel it was possibly clued in to the global threat that earthlings are currently facing because even before it flew past us, scientists noticed that it bore an uncanny resemblance to a face mask.
“The small-scale topographic features such as hills and ridges on one end of asteroid 1998 OR2 are fascinating scientifically,” Anne Virkki, head of Planetary Radar at the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico which was following the asteroid’s path, said in a press release. “But since we are all thinking about COVID-19 these features make it look like 1998 OR2 remembered to wear a mask.”
As scientists quip about the asteroid trying to protect itself from catching the coronavirus from earth, there’s a proper explanation for why we may be seeing a face mask shape on an unrelated object. The human tendency to seek patterns in random information is termed pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon in which our brain tricks us into connecting unrelated visuals based on our memories. It’s the reason why we often see clouds shaped like objects or faces on rocks, and it happens because our brain processes visual information by relating it to things we have already seen.
The asteroid generated quite the buzz over the last few weeks because of its large size—more than 500 feet—and the fact that it would come within 5 million miles of Earth's orbit, which is pretty close in astronomical terms. It wasn’t really expected to hit the earth, although NASA made a statement saying that it would have “global effects” if it did. Now that that’s flown past our planet and onto newer horizons, the asteroid is giving out some comic relief in the time of COVID-19. And while the asteroid obviously didn't intend to resemble what has now become an everyday object, let's just say it was a sign from the universe asking us to take the coronavirus seriously.
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