Massive Asteroid, Blacker Than Coal and Toting Its Own Moon, Shoots Past Earth

[node:summary]Massive, blacker-than-coal asteroid 1998 QE2, size of nine ocean liners, flies by earth today, 3.6 million miles away.

The literal mother of all asteroids—as far as Near Earth Objects are concerned, at any rate—is shooting by this afternoon.

Though 3.6 million miles away and only visible via telescope, this monster boulder the size of nine ocean liners is aptly named 1998 QE2. Moreover, it has a moon.

It poses not a single threat to Earth because it’s 15 times farther away than our own moon, NASA said in a statement. However, dark and mysterious, this hurtling rock reflects just 6 percent of the sunlight hitting it, rendering it blacker than coal.

That said, its sunlit side will face Earth during the first week of June, NASA said, making that week the best time to observe it. The closest approach is this afternoon, just about 5 p.m. on May 31, though it won’t reach maximum brightness until June 3 and 4.

Asteroid 1998 QE2 is at the perfect distance for observation: far enough away that it doesn’t pose a threat, yet close enough to provide valuable information.

“While amateur astronomers watch the space rock glide through the constellations Libra and Ophiuchus, NASA radars will be pinging the space rock with powerful bursts of radio energy, revealing an alien landscape that no one has ever seen before,” the space agency said in its statement.


This is invaluable knowledge for scientists attempting to gauge threats from incoming near-earth objects so as to fend off potential impacts. (Related: The Universe Is Throwing Rocks at Us: Scientists ID 4,700-Plus Asteroids That Could Hit Earth, Urge Warning System)

The meteor that exploded over Russia in February, injuring more than 1,000 people, provided stark evidence of the need to do so. (Related: Meteor Explodes in Fireball Over Ural Mountains, Injuring 500 and Blowing Out Windows in Russian City)

Study of 1998 QE2 is already yielding information: As NASA studied the asteroid’s approach on May 29, radar imagery revealed it as a binary system, meaning it has a tiny moon. The asteroid itself is about 1.7 miles in diameter and rotates once every four hours. The moon is 2,000 feet wide. This is not uncommon, NASA said, as 16 percent of near-Earth asteroids measuring 655 feet or more have one or even two satellites.

The flyby, whose exact moment is at 4:59 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, will be webcast live at Space.com, starting at 4:30. This is our only chance to see the tall, dark stranger: Our next rendezvous with 1998 QE2 won’t be for another couple of centuries. Think Brigadoon.

Below, Bill Nye the Science Guy puts 1998 QE2 in perspective—and explains why, when it comes to the thousands of space rocks that cross Mother Earth’s orbit daily, knowledge is power.