A 1.7-mile long asteroid, about the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, will pass relatively close by Earth on May 31st, NASA scientists announced today. The asteroid poses no danger to Earth or the moon, as it will only get within about 3.6 million miles' range of our planet (about 15 times further away than the moon orbits). But it is the closest approach this object will make in the next 200 years, NASA notes, and should give astronomers the opportunity to visualize its surface using ground-based radar telescopes. The asteroid is named 1998 QE2, after the year and specific time period when it was discovered.
"We expect to obtain a series of high-resolution images that could reveal a wealth of surface features," said Lance Benner, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement published online today. "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 they can tell us about its origin." The data can help scientists add to the growing library of knowledge about near-Earth asteroids, an important effort to be able to track other objects that are at risk of hitting Earth, such as the meteor that exploded over Russia earlier this year. Unfortunately, this asteroid won't be visible to amateur astronomers or the naked eye, so we'll have to wait for the first images to appear after NASA's telescopes capture it between May 30 and June 9.