Coming May 31st: Another Massive Asteroid Fly-By

The LA Times reported on Friday, May 17th that an asteroid with the endearing name “1998 QE2″ will passing by to visit Earth on May 31st (closest approach will be at 1:59 p.m. PDT). 1998 QE2 is 1.7 miles long and has the potential to trigger a worldwide dinosaur-scale extinction if it were to collide with the “Pale Blue Dot” where we live. NASA released a statement about the asteroid on Wednesday, May 15th:

On May 31, 2013, asteroid 1998 QE2 will sail serenely past Earth, getting no closer than about 3.6 million miles (5.8 million kilometers), or about 15 times the distance between Earth and the moon. And while QE2 is not of much interest to those astronomers and scientists on the lookout for hazardous asteroids, it is of interest to those who dabble in radar astronomy and have a 230-foot (70-meter) — or larger — radar telescope at their disposal.

“Asteroid 1998 QE2 will be an outstanding radar imaging target at Goldstone and Arecibo and we expect to obtain a series of high-resolution images that could reveal a wealth of surface features,” said radar astronomer Lance Benner, the principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. […] The closest approach of the asteroid occurs on May 31 at 1:59 p.m. Pacific[.] … This is the closest approach the asteroid will make to Earth for at least the next two centuries. Asteroid 1998 QE2 was discovered on Aug. 19, 1998, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program near Socorro, New Mexico.

The release includes a lot of detailed information about the asteroid and NASA’s general approach to near-Earth objects (also known as NEOs). Some fun reading for astronomy geeks and curious laymen alike.

By the way, if you’re wondering how 1998 QE2 received its catchy name:

The asteroid, which is believed to be about 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) or nine Queen Elizabeth 2 ship-lengths in size, is not named after that 12-decked, transatlantic-crossing flagship for the Cunard Line. Instead, the name is assigned by the NASA-supported Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., which gives each newly discovered asteroid a provisional designation starting with the year of first detection, along with an alphanumeric code indicating the half-month it was discovered, and the sequence within that half-month.

And a closing statement from the irreplaceable Carl Sagan to let your imagination run wild:

“Since, in the long run, every planetary civilization will be endangered by impacts from space, every surviving civilization is obliged to become space-faring — not because of exploratory or romantic zeal, but for the most practical reason imaginable: staying alive. … If our long-term survival is at stake, we have a basic responsibility to our species to venture to other worlds.”