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QE2 to sail past Earth from outer space

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On May 31, 2013, asteroid 1998 QE2 will pass by Earth, at a distance no closer than about 5.8 million kilometers, or about 15 times the distance between Earth and the Moon.

The asteroid, which was discovered on the 19th August 1998, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) programme in the US, is thought to be about 2.7 kilometers long. It is not a threat to Earth however, as astronomers are certain that the asteroid will pass by rather uneventfully. Although the asteroid will not be visible with the naked eye as it will be too faint, it will be visible using a small telescope. Professional radar astronomers in particular, are eagerly looking forward to the flyby as it will provide them with a chance to study the asteroid in detail using radio telescopes. Astronomers are planning to use images from the largest radio dish in the world, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico which has a diameter of 305 metres! They will also be using images from NASA’s 70 metre Deep Space Network radio dish at Goldstone Observatory in California. Using these telescopes astronomers will be able to resolve features on the asteroid as small as 3.75 metres across, even from 6 million kilometers away. “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. We will also use new radar measurements of the asteroid’s distance and velocity to improve our calculation of its orbit and compute its motion farther into the future than we could otherwise.”” said radar astronomer Lance Benner, the principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, US. The time of closest approach is 31st May at 22:59 SAST (20:59 UTC) and this flyby is the closest that the asteroid will get to Earth for at least the next two hundred years. As part of their outreach efforts, the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) will be using their 20 inch telescope to capture images of the asteroid as it approaches Earth on the 30th May, and will be streaming these live over the internet between 19:30 – 20:30 SAST (weather permitting). The live stream can be accessed at the websitehttp://asteroidflyby.saao.ac.za. The stream is timed to co-ordinate with NASA’s online outreach activities. The SAAO’s live feed will be broadcast as part of a NASA TV show accessible online at http://www.nasa.gov/ntv and will also be available on Ustream.tv with live chat capability at http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl2. The show will feature a discussion with NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden, experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex and SAAO’s Outreach Astronomer Nicola Loaring. Viewers can submit questions in advance to NASA to @AsteroidWatch on Twitter with the hashtag #asteroidQE2.

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