As a certain sci-fi opus once taught us, space is really, really big. By comparison, our planet is a microscopic speck in the universe, and the asteroids zipping around the (possibly) infinite black are even smaller. So, when an asteroid flies near Earth in a place so big and empty — and that asteroid has its own moon — the odds are astronomical.
The asteroid known as 1998 QE2 will be flying by Earth later today and come within a distance of 3.6 million miles. For comparison, the distance from the Earth to the Moon is 238,900 miles, and the distance from Earth to the Sun is 92.9 million miles. The asteroid will pass within around 15 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon — or in universe terms, by a thin hair — at an estimated time of 4:59 EST later this evening. NASA said that this is the closest 1998 QE2 will come to Earth in at least the next two centuries.
Thankfully, astronomers have stated that even though 1998 QE2 will come very close to Earth, there is no risk of an impact, which is great considering the asteroid is an estimated 1.7 miles in size — a size that would certainly spur Billy Bob Thornton to think outside of the box and hire a ragtag team of offshore drillers to be the space-saviors of Earth. The extinction event thought to kill off the dinosaurs involved a meteor estimated to be anywhere from three to nine miles in size. So, while 1998 QE2 is smaller than the meteor that is believed to have made Earth a friendlier place for tiny humans, the asteroid would still do a number on the planet if it hit.
Now, asteroids are fairly interesting when they’re just the standard affair, but 1998 QE2 has something of a special feature: its own moon. A couple of days ago when the asteroid was around 3.7 million miles from Earth, astronomers pointed the 230-foot Deep Space Network antenna to take a gander, and noticed a speck flying around the main asteroid, which measured in at around 0.3 miles in size. Aside from being a rare sight, this moon’s orbit will actually allow astronomers to weigh the main asteroid, which in turn will help astronomers figure out what 1998 QE2 is made of.
Even though there isn’t a daring and heroic mission to land astronauts on the asteroid, knowing what it’s made of will not only help scientists figure out if similar asteroids could be mined for resources, but what to expect if mankind ever lands on one, as well as how to potentially destroy one should it threaten life on Earth. NASA, as well as other companies, are planning on capturing an asteroid for a variety of reasons sometime in the not-so-distant future: for study, for mining, perhaps even — we’re all thinking it — to launch back at our eventual intergalactic enemies. Being able to study asteroids like 1998 QE2 up close will also help further along those terrifying-when-you-think-about it plans.
Though Armageddon taught us all that firing a nuke directly at a meteor wouldn’t do too much, and instead the obvious answer to saving the planet is to drill and stuff a nuke inside, scientists feel that sending a spacecraft to fire a nuke at a huge rock is most likely currently our best bet. However, (hopefully) taking a cue from the Bruce Willis classic, the craft would utilize the strategy of first boring a hole into which the nuke would fire. The craft would split in two, and one half would smash a hole into the rock, while the other half carrying the nuke would crash itself into the hole, detonating the nuke in the process. There are other theories about deterring a massive rock from colliding with the planet — such as a space tugboat — but those methods would require a decade or two of notice, whereas a kamikaze nuke spacecraft could be put together more quickly.
Luckily, 1998 QE2 won’t be headed toward Earth, but rather just passing by, saying hi and showing off its moon. Lucky us.