A giant asteroid is set to pass Earth Friday, exciting astronomers and space buffs alike. This asteroid, called 1998 QE2, is 1.7 miles in circumference, which makes it one of the biggest asteroids to pass this close to our planet.
Until recently, the distance between Earth and the asteroid meant that scientists could not get a good look at it. It wasn't until yesterday that, using the Goldstone Telescope in California, they discovered that QE2 is a binary system. To put it in layman's terms, the asteroid has its own moon, the size of two large ocean liners. The moon alone, if it crashed into the Earth, would demolish an area of land the size of Virginia.
The possibility of it crashing into Earth is not concern though. At 3.6 million miles away, the asteroid is fifteen times closer to the Earth than the moon's orbit, but it is still just far enough out to avoid Earth's gravitational field.
What is exciting is the fact that such an up close and personal look at QE2 will provide critical information for future space projects involving asteroids. The first is NASA's Osiris-Rex mission, which hopes to bring back a sample from the asteroid Bennu by 2023. This sample would be tested for forms of primitive life and evidence of matter from the beginning of the solar system. Bennu also, unlike QE2, stands a 1-in-1,000 chance of hitting Earth and knowing more about the asteroid will help deflect it if that time comes. More ambitiously, NASA hopes to "corral" an asteroid and bring it into Earth's orbit sometime in the 2020's, and studying QE2's path will help with that as well.
For all you space buffs who want to watch QE2's path alongside thousands of scientists, the asteroid will be invisible to the naked eye, but space.com will be live-streaming a telescopic view of its passage, which will occur around 4:59 p.m.