An asteroid named 1998 QE2 will fly by the Earth on Friday, May 31. Also known simply as QE2, this giant rock in space is nine times longer than the cruise ship of the same name.
The space-traveling boulder will miss the Earth by a comfortable distance of 3.6 million miles, about 15 times further away from us than the Moon. Although it poses no danger to our home world, radio astronomers are looking forward to its approach.
The Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico and the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California will be aimed at the space rock in an effort to reveal detail on its surface for the first time ever.
Lance Benner, principal investigator at Gladstone for Jet Propulsion Laboratories said, "[W]e expect to obtain a series of high-resolution images that could reveal a wealth of surface features."
The asteroid was first discovered August 19, 1998 by MIT's LINEAR program in New Mexico. It is believed to be 1.7 miles in length. By comparison, the asteroid (or possibly comet) which ended the reign of the dinosaurs was six miles across, about the size of Mt. Everest. When that object hit the Earth 65 million years ago, it exploded with the force of a billion Hiroshima bombs.
The closest approach of the asteroid to Earth will occur at 4:59 pm Eastern time on May 31. This will be the closest approach to our planet by 1998 QE2 for at least two centuries.
It is believed that the images produced from the Goldstone array will be able to make out details on the asteroid as small as 12 feet across. No one knows for sure what the asteroid looks like yet, or even its shape.
Benner added, "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."
ASA recently announced plans to capture an asteroid for exploration. This would be the first time in human history that task is accomplished.