An asteroid that is almost two miles long sailed past earth on Friday, May 31.
Asteroid 1998 QE2, a space rock big enough to wipe out civilization, passed by our planet harmlessly. But it was big enough and close enough to be seen through backyard telescopes and stirred up worldwide attention.
“Any time an asteroid comes within range of our radar observatories, it offers an opportunity to better calculate their orbits around the sun and predict future motion,” astronaut David Wolf said in a news release.
Wolf logged 168 days in space and performed seven separate space walks. He now answers questions about space at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis as the museum’s Extraordinary Scientist-in-Residence.
There was never any chance that the asteroid would harm earth, Wolf said.
However, the asteroid does offer “the ability to obtain radar images of the shape, determine distribution of mass, rotation rates, and detect some surface details,” Wolf said. “Even at a distance of 3.5 million miles, our radio telescope should resolve features of about 12 feet in size on the asteroid.
The next time the asteroid passes Earth will be July 12, 2028 at a very safe 45 million miles.
“Asteroids are thought to represent what our solar system was like at its birth,” Wolf said.
“Studying them can help us understand how our solar system formed. Asteroids can also occasionally impact planets and moons. Such an impact may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs on Earth.
Just a few months ago, in February, a much smaller undetected asteroid impacted the Earth in Russia, Wolf said.
“We are protected from smaller asteroids by our Earth’s atmosphere which breaks them up into small pieces that do not cause much damage. “
NASA is strongly considering sending a robotic spacecraft to capture a small asteroid and bring it closer to Earth for study. The asteroid could be placed in a stable point in space near our Moon.
“We would then send humans with special instruments to analyze the asteroids composition,” Wolf said. “This would help us understand the formation of our solar system and may even provide a new source of rare mineral resources. “
Asteroids may have even carried the chemical building blocks of life to Earth such as organic molecules and water. Astronauts will likely travel to a larger asteroid in the not-too-distant future using new spacecraft now in development, Wolf said.
“These are the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Capsule which will allow humans to go further into Space than ever before, even to Mars.”
If an asteroid the size of 1998 QE2 would impact Earth it would be catastrophic, Wolf said. It is important in the long run to learn how to accurately predict such impacts and to prevent them. NASA is developing more sensitive radio telescopes to better detect asteroids and predict if they could be a threat to our Earth.
Sharing such exciting experiences with young people is an important part of Wolf’s role at The Children’s Museum.
“I am thrilled when I see young people light up as they wrap their mind around space flight, the cosmos and zero gravity,” Wolf said in a news release.
“This will be an incredible opportunity to help them think in different ways that are applicable to all problem-solving. When I look back, many of the skills I needed to be good as an astronaut were learned as a young person. I can’t wait to help these young people realize what they do now will affect them for the rest of their lives.”
For more information: Contact The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis at www.childrensmuseum.org or (317) 334-3322.