On May 31, at 20:59 Universal Time, the asteroid “1998 QE2″ will make a majestic pass by planet Earth. While there is no danger of impact, it’s the closest the asteroid will get to earth for the next two hundred years. Estimated to be 1.7 miles long, the flying space rock will pass as close as 3.6 million miles-that’s a distance about 15 times greater than the Earth-Moon pairing.
While optical astronomers and amateur observers aren’t particularly interested in this close pass (it will be difficult but not impossible to spot with a telescope) radar astronomers couldn’t be more excited.
“Asteroid 1998 QE2 will be an outstanding radar imaging target at Goldstone and Arecibo [observatories] and we expect to obtain a series of high-resolution images that could reveal a wealth of surface features,” said radar astronomer Lance Benner, the principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
“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 Benner. “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.”
Even though 1998 QE2 it will be some 4 million miles away, researchers armed with the Goldstone antenna hope to resolve features on the asteroid’s face as small as 12 feet across. Like snowflakes, no two asteroids are alike. Thanks to their constant exposure to the Sun, they can be shaped in various forms and range widely in sizes.
While no one knows exactly what asteroid 1998 QE2 look like, if all goes well, we should be able to put a face to a name very soon.
From May 30 until June 9, radar astronomers using NASA’s 230-foot-wide Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico will be conducting an exhaustive regime of observations. The two telescopes have complementary imaging capabilities which will enable astronomers to learn as much as possible about the asteroid during its brief visit near Earth.
“It is tremendously exciting to see detailed images of this asteroid for the first time,” said Benner. “With radar we can transform an object from a point of light into a small world with its own unique set of characteristics. In a real sense, radar imaging of near-Earth asteroids is a fundamental form of exploring a whole class of solar system objects.”
The last “close shave” occurred on Feburary 15 of this year, when a 130-foot asteroid 2012 DA14 passed by just 17,200 miles away, on the same day that a 55-foot object exploded over Russia.
According to Mike Wall, senior writer at Space.com, “our planet has been pummeled by space rocks throughout its 4.5-billion-year history, and more strikes are in our future.”
But NASA stays on top of these future strikes, leading the global effort to identify potentially dangerous asteroids.
About asteroid 1998 QE2: Discovered on August 19, 1998 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program near Socorro, New Mexico. While its name isn’t very exciting, it is assigned by the NASA-supported Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which gives each newly discovered asteroid a provisional designation. Its catalog number starts with the year of first detection, along with an alphanumeric code indicating the half-month it was discovered, and the sequence within that half-month.