A massive asteroid 1.7 miles (2.7kms) wide is set to make its closest approach to Earth in two hundred years on May 31st. However, before sparking any unnecessary panic it should be noted that asteroid 1998 QE2 will approach at a safe distance of 3.6 million miles (5.8 million kms), or roughly 15 times further away than the moon is to Earth.
Although amateur astronomers will have little to see of this near earth object (NEO), scientists are looking forward to the information they will receive from studying high-resolution surface feature images using NASA’s 230 foot (70 meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California. Puerto Rico’s 1,000 foot (305 meter) Arecibo Observatory will also assist in revealing a wealth of data about this huge chunk of space rock, and as Lance Benner from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains:
“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.”
Asteroid or comet collisions in Earth’s past have had a significant role in shaping the history of our planet, and NASA continues to champion global effort to identify and catalogue potentially dangerous asteroids, with its NEO budget escalating from $6 million to $20 million last year.