Asteroid 1998 QE2 Will Pass Earth at a Distance of 6 Million Km Tomorrow

The entire universe in blog form
May 30 2013 11:20 AM

Asteroid 1998 QE2 to Safely Pass Earth Tomorrow

Asteroid 1998 QE2 orbit
The near-Earth Asteroid 1998 QE2 will miss our planet by a wide margin—six million kilometers—on Friday.

Illustration by JPL

On Friday, May 31, 2013 at 20:59 UTC (4:59 p.m. EDT), the asteroid 1998 QE2 will make its closest approach to Earth. Not that it’s all that close: It will miss us by six million kilometers (3.6 million miles), or 15 times the distance to the Moon. That’s good, because the asteroid is 2.7 kilometers (1.7 miles) across.

To be clear, we're safe from this particular asteroid; this pass is only close in an astronomical sense. It’s still so far that you’ll need a decent telescope just to see it at all (it’ll get to a brightness of about magnitude 10—the faintest star you can see with the naked eye is 50 times brighter), and this is the closest it’ll get to us for literally hundreds of years.

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Still, it’s a big rock and close enough that astronomers are taking note. It’s a prime target for radar observations, and the Goldstone observatory will be pinging it during the pass. Those observations should resolve surface features on QE2 just a few meters across. NASA’s JPL put together a short video about all this:

As with any near pass of an asteroid, conspiracy theories abound. Forgive me if I don’t give them any air by linking to them, but I've seen these claims come and go a dozen times in the past. Silliness like NASA is hiding evidence the asteroid will hit us; the asteroid will connect with the Earth electromagnetically and cause storms, and so on ad nauseum. The only things these breathless (and baseless) claims have in common is that they are always wrong, yet they always pop up again the next time an asteroid comes within a few million klicks of us. Either conspiracy theorists have a short memory, or their audience does.

I have to admit, this kind of nonsense is cramping my sense of humor. Given the asteroid’s designation and size, I really want to say it’s titanic. But I’ll refrain.

Anyway, NASA has a bunch of talks, interviews, and other activities about the asteroid planned for today and tomorrow. Instead of getting worked up over nonsense, here’s a chance to learn about the reality of asteroids, what we can discover about them, and what role they play in the understanding of our solar system. I bet you’ll find, as always, that reality is far, far more amazing than fantasy.

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies! Follow him on Twitter.