An asteroid and its moon will pass within 3.6 million miles of Earth on Friday, marking a milestone for NASA scientists who have been waiting years to catch a glimpse of the space rock.
The asteroid, dubbed 1998 QE2, measures about 1.7 miles wide and its orbiting moon is about 2,000 feet in diameter. Astronomers have been tracking the asteroid for a decade and a half, excited at the opportunity to see it relatively up close.
"It's one of the initial successes of our effort to find the big asteroids
that could hit the Earth and cause global catastrophe," Paul Chodas, a scientist with the project, told CNN. "It's certainly one to keep an eye on."
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Any asteroid as large as a half-mile across would cause a global catastrophe, if it struck Earth, Chodas said.
Observing the 1998 QE2 could help NASA plan for the Osiris-Rex mission, which will aim to bring back a sample from the asteroid Bennu in 2023, and an even more ambitious mission to corral an asteroid by the mid-2020s.
The discovery of the asteroid's moon was also surprising to researchers, as only about 15 percent of asteroids travel in groups.
"It turns out that 1998 QE2 is a binary asteroid," NASA radar scientist Marina Brozovic, who helped take the images of the asteroid with the Deep Space Network antenna in Goldstone, Calif., told CNN. "This is something we did not expect."
NASA's Near Earth Object Project has reportedly identified 95 percent of asteroids that would pose the biggest threats. Luckily, there is no known possibility of one slamming into the planet.
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