May 30, 2013 at 9:40 AM ET
Asteroid 1998 QE2, a space rock more than nine times as long as the QE2 ocean liner, is due to sail past Earth on Friday — generating a huge wave of observations and online commentary.
The 1.7-mile-wide (2.7-kilometer-wide) near-Earth asteroid won't pose any threat to our planet: Its orbit will bring it no closer than 3.6 million miles (5.8 million kilometers) at 4:59 p.m. ET. Nevertheless, it's sparking interest because it's big enough, and coming close enough, to serve as a valuable target for scientific study.
1998 QE2's passage is also stoking public interest because it's coming just three and a half months after a much smaller asteroid broke apart spectacularly over Russia. NASA and the White House are using Friday's event to turn the spotlight on planetary science as well as the space agency's plans to fend off potential cosmic threats and send astronauts to snag an asteroid in the 2020s.
"Let’s find the asteroids before they find us, and in the process learn more about the secrets of the solar system and other potential opportunities these space rocks present," Phil Larson, a policy adviser for space and aeronautics at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote in a blog posting.
The teachable moments begin Thursday. Here's what's you can look forward to:
See the asteroid on video: NASA Administrator Charles Bolden joins experts from JPL and the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in a video presentation that features live telescope images of 1998 QE2. You can watch the hourlong show starting at 1:30 p.m. ET Thursday on NASA Television, or on Ustream.tv with live chat capability. Tweet your questions to @AsteroidWatch.
Chat about the asteroid: Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama hosts an online chat from 8 to 10 p.m. ET Thursday.
White House gathers the geeks: The White House is hosting a "We the Geeks" Google+ Hangout about asteroids at 2 p.m. ET Friday, with OSTP's Cristin Dorgelo serving as moderator. Video guests include NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver; Bill Nye the Science Guy (who is executive director of the Planetary Society); former astronaut Ed Lu, who heads the B612 Foundation and its effort to build an asteroid-hunting space telescope; Peter Diamandis, who wants to turn asteroids into riches as co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources; and Jose Luis Galache, an astronomer at the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center. The Hangout can be watched via the White House Google+ page. Tweet questions using the hashtag #WetheGeeks, or post them as comments on the Google+ page.
Train a telescope on it: Even at its closest, 1998 QE2 is too dim to see with the naked eye or binoculars. Its maximum visual brightness is expected to reach 11th magnitude, which could be within the range of respectable telescopes. Local midnight is the best time to look for the asteroid, but you have to know exactly where to look. David Dickinson provides plenty of guidance on the Universe Today website.
Watch it online: Slooh Space Camera has scheduled an online viewing party starting at 4:30 p.m. ET Friday, which is a half-hour before the time of closest approach. A telescope set-up in the Canary Islands will deliver imagery of 1998 QE2 out via Slooh's website as well as its iPad app.
Watch for asteroid updates: It looks as if #asteroidQE2 and #1998QE2 are the favored hashtags for updates about the space rock's flyby. You'll also want to keep an eye on NASA's Asteroid Watch website and JPL's Facebook page. Even though the closest approach comes on Friday, radar astronomers will be observing 1998 QE2 through June 9 using NASA's 230-foot-wide (70-meter-wide) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, Calif., as well as the 1,000-foot-wide (305-meter-wide) Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The radar imagery will be key to determining 1998 QE2's size and shape with greater accuracy, and you can expect NASA to share that imagery in the weeks ahead.And about that name ... 1998 QE2 wasn't named after the Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liner. Instead, it follows the naming system used by the IAU for asteroids. The object was discovered on Aug. 19, 1998, by MIT's Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research program in New Mexico, also known as LINEAR. The "1998" in the provisional name denotes the year of discovery. The "Q" means it was discovered during the latter half of August. The "E2" is a code given to the 55th object discovered during the half-month. Wikipedia explains the system in greater depth. Eventually, LINEAR could propose a less wonky name for approval by the IAU. But there's no rush: The next time 1998 QE2 is due to come this close is in the year 2221.
More about asteroids:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log pageto your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.