How to Spot Near-Earth Asteroid 1998 QE2 This Week

by David Dickinson on May 27, 2013

A large asteroid visits our fair corner of the solar system this week, and with a little planning you may just be able to spot it.

Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) 285263 (1998 QE2) will pass 6.2 million kilometres from the Earth on Friday, May 31st at 20:59 Universal Time (UT) or 4:59PM EDT. Discovered in 1998 during the LIncoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) sky survey looking for such objects, 1998 QE2 will shine at magnitude +10 to +12 on closest approach. Estimates of its size vary from 1.3 to 2.9 kilometres, with observations by the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2010 placing the ballpark figure towards the high end of the scale at 2.7 kilometres in diameter.

1998 QE2 would fit nicely with room to spare in Oregon’s 8 kilometre-wide Crater Lake.
Though this passage is over 15 times as distant as the Earth’s Moon, the relative size of this space rock makes it of interest. This is the closest approach of 1998 QE2 for this century, and there are plans to study it with both the Arecibo and Goldstone radio telescopes to get a better description of its size and rotation as it sails by. Expect to see radar maps of 1998 QE2 by this weekend.

“Asteroid 1998 QE2 will be an outstanding radar imaging target… we expect to obtain a series of high-resolution images that could reveal a wealth of surface features.” Said astronomer and principal JPL investigator Lance Benner.

An Amor-class asteroid, 1998 QE2 has an orbit of 3.77 years that takes it from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to just exterior of the Earth’s orbit. 1998 QE2 currently comes back around to our vicinity roughly every 15 years, completing about 4 orbits as it does so. Its perihelion exterior to our own makes it no threat to the Earth. This week’s passage is the closest for 1998 QE2 until a slightly closer pass on 0.038 Astronomical Units on May 27th, 2221. Note that on both years, the Earth is just over a month from aphelion (its farthest point from the Sun) which falls in early July.

Of course, the “QE2” designation has resulted in the inevitable comparisons to the size of the asteroid in relation to the Queen Elizabeth II cruise liner. Asteroid designations are derived from the sequence in which they were discovered in a given year. 1998 QE2 was the 55th asteroid discovered in the period running from August 1st to 16th 1998.

Perhaps we could start measuring asteroids in new and creative units, such as “Death Stars” or “Battlestars?”

A recent animation of 1998 QE2 from earlier this month.


So how can you watch the QE2 asteroid as it flies by Earth?

Well, according to NASA, anyone with a 230-foot radar telescope at their disposal will be able to see the asteroid.

NASA astronomers will be viewing asteroid 1998 QE2 using the 230-foot Goldstone dish telescope in California, and in Puerto Rico using the 1,000-foot telescope at the Arecibo Observatory. NASA says that images from the Goldstone antenna could show features on the asteroid that are as small as 12 feet -- all from 4 million miles away.

But if you don't have a 230-foot radar telescope -- which, unless you're NASA, you probably don't -- you may still be able to see the QE2 asteroid using a conventional telescope. The website Universe Today has detailed instructions on how to see the asteroid as it flies by the planet on May 31 at 4:59 PM ET. Basically: aim at Libra around midnight, and watch for a tiny moving dot.


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