Don't panic! Massive QE2 asteroid to fly by Earth at safe distance

CBS

A massive asteroid will do a fly by this week, but don't worry -- NASA says the space rock "will sail serenely past Earth."

An asteroid more than 1 1/2 miles long will zoom past Earth this week from a far-off distance. The big rock called Asteroid 1998 QE2 will make its closest approach Friday at about 4:59 p.m. ET.

It will keep a safe distance of 3.6 million miles, or 15 times the distance between Earth and the moon. You won't be able to see it without a powerful telescope.

It's believed to be about 1.7 miles long, or about nine times the length of the Queen Elizabeth 2 cruise ship. But that has nothing to do with its name. The letters and number in the name represent the timing and sequence of the asteroid's discovery in 1998.

In a rare opportunity, scientists will use large radar telescopes to study its shape, rotation and surface features.

"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," radar astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Lance Benner said in a statement.

This is the first time the asteroid will be studied in great detail. NASA says the radar images could reveal features as small as 12 feet across, even from 4 million miles away.

"With radar we can transform an object from a point of light into a small world with its own unique set of characteristics. In a real sense, radar imaging of near-Earth asteroids is a fundamental form of exploring a whole class of solar system objects," Benner said.


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