Massive Asteroid QE2 Flies By Earth This Month

A massive asteroid is set to fly by Earth at the end of May. While it poses no threat to our planet, astronomers are still keeping a close eye on it.

The 1.7-mile-long asteroid will be about 3.6 million miles away from Earth when it passes by on May 31. That distance is about 15 times the distance that separates the Earth and the moon.

The close approach will allow astronomers to get a good look at the giant rock, named 1998 QE2. They will observe through two radar telescopes, NASA’s 230-foot Goldstone dish in California and Puerto Rico’s 1,000 foot Arecibo Observatory.

The massive asteroid was discovered by astronomers working with MIT’s Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program in August 1998. The name isn’t an homage to England’s Queen Elizabeth II, or even to the famous 12-deck ocean liner retired from service in 2008.

Rather, it’s the moniker assigned by the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The center names each newly discovered asteroid according to an already-established alphanumeric scheme.

Astronomers will study the asteroid 1998 QE2 intensively from May 30 until June 9. They hope to learn as much as possible about the asteroid before it flies off into the depths of space.

This month’s fly by will be the asteroid’s closest approach to Earth for the next 200 years or so. Scientists also hope to figure out where exactly the large space rock came from. The asteroid has a mysterious sooty substance covering it. The substance could indicate it broke off of a comet that flew too close to the sun. However, it could also have leaked from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Despite the giant asteroid’s close approach to Earth, there is no danger, though the rock’s size gives it a potential for mass destruction. Amy Mainzer, who tracks near-Earth objects at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, explained, “This is a really big asteroid, similar in size to the one that killed off the dinosaurs, and it’s getting very close to us.”

But, Mainzer added, “We don’t need to panic.” There is no word on whether the giant asteroids fly by Earth will be livestreamed online.

[Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech]