Scary Asteroid the Size of Nine Cruise Ships will Sail Past Earth in May

First Posted: May 16, 2013 03:05 PM EDT

There are some scary things out there in space, and an asteroid the size of nine cruise ships is one of them. NASA officials have announced that the massive asteroid 1998 QE2 will sail past Earth on May 31, getting no closer than about 3.6 million miles--15 times the distance between Earth and the moon.

While the huge asteroid may not get close to Earth, though, some are looking forward to its arrival. Those who dabble in radar astronomy and have a 230-foot or larger radar telescope at their disposal may be able to image the target.

"Asteroid 1998 Q2 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, in a news release. "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 it can tell us about its origin."

First discovered in 1998, the asteroid is actually about 1.7 miles in length. The closest it will approach will be at 4:59 p.m. EST on May 31. This will be the nearest the massive body will be to our Earth for at least the next two centuries.

Although this asteroid doesn't pose a threat to Earth, it does highlight a growing effort to track potentially hazardous asteroids. NASA places high priority on tracking these objects in space, and the U.S. has the most robust and productive survey and detection program for discovering near-Earth objects. To date, U.S. assets have discovered over 98 percent of NEOs.

Currently, researchers plan to image the asteroid as it passes near Earth using NASA's 230-foot-wide Deep Space Network antenna and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The resulting data and observations should be able to tell scientists a little bit more about the asteroid, and could result in some fantastic images in the future.

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

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