Watch Giant Asteroid Sail Past Earth Friday—Live

Asteroid 1998 QE2 will make it’s closest approach to Earth on May 31, 2013 Credit: JPL/NASA

Astronomers around the world are gearing up to get their first close-up views of a giant space rock and it’s new-found moon, set to hurtle by Earth Friday, May 31. The flyby will be broadcast live around the world via the web.

Remote controlled telescopes on the Canary Islands, off the coast of West Africa, will cover the asteroid’s closest approach to our planet which occurs at 4:59 p.m. EDT. You can catch the live coverage right here starting at 1:30 p.m. PDT / 4:30 p.m. EDT / 20:30 UTC. (Find out when the broadcast will occur in your time zone.)

Called 1998 QE2, this asteroid is considered a potentially hazardous object because it makes a regular close approach to Earth’s orbit. (Related: “Asteroid Impacts: 10 Biggest Known Hits.”)

QE2 is a true mountain in motion, stretching 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) across—nine times the length of the 12-deck Queen Elizabeth 2 cruise ship.

Asteroid QE2 is equal in length to 9 Queen Elizabeth cruise-liners.  credit: JPL/NASA
Asteroid QE2 is equal in length to 9 Queen Elizabeth cruise-liners. credit: JPL/NASA

NASA decided to get a jump on things, starting their observations of the asteroid on May 29 using the 230-foot (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California. And astronomers have already made a surprising discovery.

QE2 has been hiding its own moon—about  2,000 feet (600 meters) wide. Considering the hundreds of asteroids out there, NASA says this may not be that uncommon. As many as 16 percent of asteroids are actually part of binary or triplet systems.

From initial radar observations, it turns out the asteroid shows hints of craters, and it may also be tumbling at a slower rate than previously thought.

Luckily for us Earthlings, there is no chance of a collision. The asteroid will pass by on Friday at 4:59 p.m. EDT at a safe distance of 3.6 million miles (5.8 million kilometers)—15 times the distance separating the Earth from the moon. This is the closest approach the asteroid will make to our planet for at least the next two centuries. (Related: “Asteroid to Make Closest Flyby in History.”)

Despite its relative distance from Earth, QE2 will still be visible to backyard telescopes (at least four to six inches in mirror size) as a faint 11th magnitude star (100 times fainter than what the human eye can see) silently  gliding across the southern skies the next few nights.

QE2 will appear to glide across the night sky over the course of many days an will be visible in backyard telescopes.  Credit: JPL/NASA
QE2 will appear to glide across the night sky over the course of several days, and will be visible using backyard telescopes. Credit: JPL/NASA

Unfortunately, the Hubble Space Telescope‘s powerful eye will see pretty much the same thing. So NASA astronomers plan to train two of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes on the asteroid as it makes its closest approach today.

By bouncing radio signals off the tumbling asteroid, they hope to create a detailed map that will reveal information about its rotation, shape, and surface features as small as 12 feet (3.75 meters) across.

“With radar we can transform an object from a point of light into a small world with its own unique set of characteristics,” said Lance Benner, principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a press statement.

“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.”


Meet the Author
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.