A massive space rock is going to sail past the Earth on Friday, and astronomers are gearing up to catch the closest look at this brute they're going to have for the next two centuries.
Asteroid 1998 QE2 was discovered in August of 1998, by astronomers working with MIT's Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program. It's estimated at being around 2.7 kilometres in diameter, nearly 100 times larger than asteroid 2012 DA14 that flew past us back in February, and nearly 10 times bigger than asteroid Apophis, and nine times bigger than the cruise ship that carries the same name (although there's no connection there).
Fortunately for us, 1998 QE2 is going to be giving us a much wider berth than either of those asteroids. At its closest approach, right around 5 p.m. EDT, it's going to come within 5.8 million kilometres of us, or roughly 15 times further away from us than the Moon. So, there's no chance of 1998 QE2 hitting us, or even coming close to hitting us, which is very good.
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Taking Apophis as an example, since there has been so much hand-wringing about it, that particular hunk of space rock has a mass of roughly 40 million tons. If 1998 QE2 is made of similar stuff (and not, say, iron), it's mass could be closer to 40 billion tons. That's certainly not as big as whatever-it-was that killed the dinosaurs, but something that big could still make things a bit difficult for us.
In that quick video of the path of the asteroid, you can see how close it comes to us (on the scale of the solar system), but 1998 QE2 actually never even comes close to hitting Earth. It's orbit around the Sun takes about 3 years and 9 months to complete, as it traces a path from out between Mars and Jupiter to just outside our orbit, but we only see it every 15 years or so, just due to 'poor timing'. However, it's an Amor-class asteroid, which means that it never crosses the path of our orbit, and thus it's no threat to us.
This makes it a great asteroid to study, though.
As the asteroid flies by on Friday, astronomers from around the world will be pointing telescopes at it, and some will even be taking radar readings from it, in order to get a better idea of what the asteroid is like.
"Whenever an asteroid approaches this closely, it provides an important scientific opportunity to study it in detail to understand its size, shape, rotation, surface features, and what they can tell us about its origin," said Lance Benner, a radar astronomer with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, according to a NASA-JPL news release. "We will also use new radar measurements of the asteroid's distance and velocity to improve our calculation of its orbit and compute its motion farther into the future than we could otherwise."
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Although the fly-by has been timed down to the minute, 1998 QE2 is actually pacing the Earth for a few days before and after Friday. It's a fairly dark asteroid, so you'll probably need a nice dark sky, away from most sources of light pollution, but anyone with a telescope can try to catch a glimpse of it. The best time to try is probably between 9 p.m. and midnight, local time. Point your telescope towards the constellation Libra and see if you can pick it out!
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