At around 5 p.m. Eastern on Friday, a massive asteroid named 1998 QE2 will zoom by Earth at a relatively close distance... for space anyway. And as exciting as that may be for space nerds, this thing had better keep it's distance: The rock is 2,000 feet across and could wipe out Virginia if it didn't, according to NBC News supreme space nerd Alan Boyle — and that's just the asteroid's moon. The asteroid itself is 1.7 miles wide and would be the stuff of bad '90s summer blockbusters (or, you know, the disaster hitting the box office this weekend). But apparently astronomers didn't even know that 1998 QE2 had a self-orbiting moon until they studied the beast on radar this past week — it's that white dot in the GIF below:
The asteroid is also labeled as a "potentially hazardous" object because it makes a "regular close approach" to Earth's orbit, National Geographic's Andrew Fazekas writes. That's a lot scarier than it sounds because "close" in space is not that close at all; the closest 1998 QE2 will come to Earth is about 3.6 million miles (apparently the height of its pass will arrive around 4:59 p.m.), which is around 15 times the distance from Earth to its moon, according to NASA. So, yeah, you can't see this thing without a really, really fancy telescope. Sorry.
While these kinds of flying star beasts have spurred talks about beefing up our nuclear defenses against "potentially hazardous" moon-toting asteroids (you know, like in Armageddon) and the need for aggressive radar astronomy, space nerds are actually relishing this close fly-by for offering them a chance to study such a relatively nearby rock. That information will come in handy when studying other potentially hazardous asteroids, like the more fearsome asteroid Bennu, which passes Earth's orbit every six years. NASA's Osiris-Rex mission is planning to bring back samples from Bennu in 2023, and of course the space organization has ambitious plans to lasso an asteroid by the mid 2020s.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.