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Environment & Science

Massive 1.7-mile long asteroid to sail 'close' to Earth

The orbit of asteroid 1998 QE2.
The orbit of asteroid 1998 QE2.

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Have you ever wanted to see what the dinosaurs saw right before they became extinct? 

Probably not, but if you have a very big telescope, you can look to the sky on Friday night to safely catch a glimpse of Asteroid 1998 QE2. It's 1.7 miles long — about the same size of the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs — and it's flying close to Earth.

But no need to start rapidly checking things off your bucket list. The asteroid is expected to miss Earth by about 3.6 million miles, which is roughly 15 times the distance between Earth and the moon. At that distance it's not of much interest to astronomers and scientists who monitor threatening asteroids, but those with a 230-foot or larger radar telescope will be watching and taking notes.

"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, the principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "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." 

Asteroid 1998 QE2 was discovered in 1998 by MIT's Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program near Socorro, New Mexico. The asteroid will make its closest approach May 31 at 1:50 p.m. PSD. This is the closest it will be for at least two centuries. 

"You still need a moderate-sized telescope to see this one," said Paul Chodas, a scientist with NASA's near earth object program office at JPL. "You still need an 8-inch telescope or so. It's in the Southern skies right now, so it's not particularly well situated. But after the close approach it will be pretty bright."

Radar astronomers using NASA's 230-foot-wide Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, Calif., and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, are planning to monitor the asteroid and take an extensive number of observations. 

"We don't know what it's made of, but we will know in a couple days. We'll know its shape and size, how fast it's rotating, we'll know about the boulders on it, craters possibly," said Chodas. "It's a dark asteroid from the depths of space. It's a very primitive body, probably consisting of blackish rock. It would have the same color as the bottom of your barbeque grill, but think of it as just a black rock."