By Andrew Fazekas
Astronomers around the world are gearing up to get their first close-up views of a giant space rock set to hurtle by Earth this Friday, May 31.
Called 1998 QE2, this asteroid is considered a potentially hazardous object because it makes a regular close approach to Earth’s orbit. (Related: “Asteroid Impacts: 10 Biggest Known Hits.”)
QE2 is a true mountain in motion, stretching 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) across—nine times the length of the 12-deck Queen Elizabeth 2 cruise ship.
Luckily for us Earthlings, there is no chance of a collision. The asteroid will pass by at 4:59 p.m. EDT at a safe distance of 3.6 million miles (5.8 million kilometers)—15 times the distance separating the Earth from the moon. This is the closest approach the asteroid will make to our planet for at least the next two centuries. (Related: “Asteroid to Make Closest Flyby in History.”)
Despite its relative distance from Earth, QE2 will still be visible to backyard telescopes (at least four to six inches in mirror size) as a faint 11th magnitude star (100 times fainter than what the human eye can see) silently gliding across the southern skies the next few nights.
Unfortunately, the Hubble Space Telescope‘s powerful eye will see pretty much the same thing. So NASA astronomers plan to train two of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes on the asteroid as it makes its closest approach this Friday.
By bouncing radio signals off the tumbling asteroid, they hope to create a detailed map that will reveal information about its rotation, shape, and surface features as small as 12 feet (3.75 meters) across.
“With radar we can transform an object from a point of light into a small world with its own unique set of characteristics,” said Lance Benner, principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a press statement.
“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.”
NASA decided to get a jump on observations and has started looking at the asteroid on May 29th using the 230-foot (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, Calif., and has already made a surprising discovery that QE2 has its own moon – about 2,000 feet (600 meters) wide.
Remote controlled telescopes on the Canary Islands, off the coast of West Africa, will cover the asteroid’s closest approach on Friday, May 31. You can catch the live coverage—free to the public—on Slooh.com starting at 1:30 p.m. PDT / 4:30 p.m. EDT / 20:30 UTC. (Find out when the broadcast will occur in your time zone.)
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