No, it is not another doomsday scenario involving an asteroid’s close shave with our home planet, but it does happen to be an opportunity for scientists to observe and collect data on the massive space rock 1998 QE2, a hurtling object 1.7 miles long. Of course, if the asteroid were on a slightly different trajectory through our Solar System, there might be room for “Armageddon” types of scenarios, but NASA and Space.com assures us that this particular fly-by in late May will not need planet-saving heroics, just a few good scientists and operable telescopes.
As Space.com reports via Yahoo News (May 18), the asteroid 1998 QE2 is expected to make its closest approach to Earth on the last day of the month, coming within 3.6 million miles of our world — or about 15 times the distance between the moon and the Earth. In short, the huge space rock poses no real or direct threat to the planet.
Lance Benner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and principal investigator for Goldstone radar observations, said in a statement: “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. 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.”
Plans are for astronomers to study asteroid 1998 QE2 extensively between May 30 and June 8, using the radar imaging telescopes at Arecibo (Puerto Rico) and Goldstone (California).
“It is tremendously exciting to see detailed images of this asteroid for the first time,” Benner said of the object estimated to be nine times the size of an ocean liner. “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 asteroid was discovered on Aug. 19, 1998, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program near Socorro, New Mexico. Its designation, although some might think it an homage to the ocean liner or the second famous Queen Elizabeth, is merely the coincidence of its discovery and the next alphanumeric combination up for use in labeling asteroids.
Although 1998 QE2 does not pose a realistic threat, NASA is at the vanguard of identifying potentially dangerous objects, those intra-solar missiles that could, given just the right angles and momentum, present as potential candidates for impacting the Earth.
A prime example of how important such a near Earth object catalog could be with regard to possible catastrophes occurred in February when a theretofore unregistered asteroid entered the Earth’s atmosphere over Russia, detonating with the force of a 500-kiloton nuclear bomb. The airburst blew out windows and knocked people to the ground, injuring approximately 1,500 people in Chelyabinsk, Russia. The meteor (technically, a bolide) completely surprised astronomers, who were intent on studying the near Earth fly-by of asteroid 2012 DA14, which made its closest pass (17,200 miles from Earth) just hours after the explosion.
The Earth has been the recipient of many meteor strikes throughout its history, including the Chicxulub asteroid, the massive impactor that is believed to have collided with the Earth off the Yucatan Peninsula and contributed to the mass extinction of countless species of animals — not least of which were the dinosaurs — some 66 million years ago.
The Earth Impact Database, a catalog of Earth impact sites, was updated in March to include a 470-million-year-old crater in Iowa that measured some 3.4 miles across. It is estimated that the asteroid that formed the Decorah Meteor Crater was roughly 660 feet in diameter and impacted the Earth with the force of a 1,000 megaton bomb. That meteor is believed to have been one of several that impacted the Earth at roughly the same time, a series of hits known as the Ordovician meteor event.