An asteroid, nearly three kilometers wide, flew by Earth Friday. According to astronomers, the asteroid posed no threat to Earth, passing at a distance equivalent to nearly 15 times the distance between Earth and the moon. However, it was close enough to be observed by astronomers using radar telescopes.
Asteroid 1998 QE2, named for its date of discovery, will be observed by astronomers from May 30 through June 9 using the Deep Space Network antenna in Goldstone, California, and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. When the asteroid is closest, astronomers will be able to observe features as small as 12 feet across.
The surface of the asteroid is covered in a sticky black substance that Phys.org describes as “similar to the gunk at the bottom of a barbecue.” If it had impacted Earth it would have resulted in global extinction. NASA scientist Paul Chodas says that this asteroid is the same size as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, The Star reports.
A smaller “moon” asteroid is circling the larger asteroid, an unusual but not unheard of phenomena.
Scientists have not pinpointed the origins of this large asteroid. Amy Mainzer, who tracks near-Earth objects at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says that the black substance on the surface of the asteroid could indicate that it was a comet that flew too close to the sun. It could have also come from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
The White House took advantage of the asteroid event to host its second “We the Geek” Google+ hangout, complete with commentary from Bill Nye the Science Guy, former astronaut Ed Lu, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, and other science experts.
During the chat, the commentators discussed asteroid identification and characterization, as well as resource utilization and hazard mitigation. President Barack Obama’s new budget includes allowances to continue to study asteroids and how we can protect Earth from hazardous space objects.
Earlier this year, a meteor explosion over Russia injured over 1,000 people, reminding us that even as this asteroid passes by peacefully, damage and danger created by space objects is a real threat. NASA is currently looking into a mission to capture an asteroid and place it in orbit near the moon in able to study it better. The space agency is hopeful that in the future they will be able to divert asteroids and other space material from a catastrophic collision with Earth.
While the flyby of 1998 QE2 did not threaten Earth, and its next pass is not for another hundred years, it is a reminder of the objects that are orbiting in space along with the Earth. “We don’t need to panic, but we do need to pay attention,” Mainzer says.