How to zero in on asteroid 1998 QE2 during Friday’s flyby

Radar images made on May 29, when 1998 QE2 was about 3.75 million miles from Earth, show a brand new moonlet circling its papa. Click image to see a video and read more about the discovery. Credit: NASA

So we got this hefty asteroid approaching Earth tomorrow. 1998 QE2 will pass a safe 3.6 million miles (5.8 million km) or 15 times the distance of the moon at 3:59 p.m. Central time tomorrow afternoon.  The 1.7 (2.7 km) mile wide space rock was discovered in August 1998 and while it still has no formal name, we’ll become closely acquainted via optical and radio telescope over the next several nights.

Many asteroid approach Earth much more closely but QE2 is exceptional because it’s larger than your average Earth-approacher and is making its closest pass for at least the next two centuries.

Many separate telescopic images were combined to create this animation of asteroid 1998 QE2 moving through a star field earlier this month. Credit: Ernesto Guido and Nick Howes

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., will show live images of the asteroid on NASA TV and host a discussion with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and experts from JPL and the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex from 12:3-1:30 p.m. CDT today May 30. Scientists at Goldstone will be using radar to track and image the asteroid. You can watch it on NASA TV or Ustream.

The orbit of asteroid 1998 QE2. Its closest point to the sun is similar to Earth’s; when farthest it’s 353 million miles from the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Be aware that the live images will show 1998 QE2 as a slowly moving “star”. It’s much too small and far away to show any detail in optical telescopes. Pictures created using the 230-foot Goldstone radio dish to ping the asteroid with radio waves will show details as small as 12 feet (3.75m), but these won’t be available in real time. They require time for processing.

Asteroid 1998 QE2 slices across Libra over the coming nights. Sky watchers with 4-inch or larger telescopes can use the detailed charts (below) to spot it. Click for hi-res version of map. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap program

From 7-9 p.m. CDT tonight Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will host an online chat on 1998 QE2. Click the link a few minutes before 7 p.m., log in to the chat module that appears on the page and ask away. You can also watch it live during closest approach on SLOOH starting at 4 p.m. CDT tomorrow May 31.

If you’re game, you can even see the asteroid for yourself. You’ll need at least a 4-inch telescope and reasonably dark skies. Unfortunately it’s not visible with the naked eye or standard binoculars. For the next few nights 1998 QE2 will shine around 10.5 – 11 magnitude as it exits the constellation of Hydra and moves through the zodiac constellation Libra.

This map shows 1998 QE2’s position every hour starting this evening at 10:30 p.m. CDT. Remember to convert that time to your own time zone. North is up and east to the left; stars are shown to about 11th magnitude. The star patterns I’ve drawn will help you find the asteroid – especially tonight – since it won’t be near any obvious bright stars. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap program

Libra’s well up in the south-southeast for much of the northern and southern hemisphere as soon as the sky gets dark. No setting the alarm for some ungodly hour. The farther south you are, the higher in the sky the asteroid will be.

The wide-view map shows the asteroid’s position at 10:30 p.m. CDT now through early June. At closest approach tomorrow, 1998 QE2 will move about one degree (two full moons side by side) every 3 hours, a motion you easily detect in just a few minutes using low power in your scope. You’ll be looking for a faint “star” that won’t stay put but slowly moves to the east as the seconds and minutes tick by.

Map of the asteroid’s travels tomorrow and Saturday nights. Once again, north is up and east to the left. Friday night you can see that QE2 passes near several brighter stars plotted on the wide angle map (above) making it easier to find. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

I usually “lay a trap” and find a relatively bright star or stars the asteroid will pass through some minutes ahead of time. Then I stare into the eyepiece and wait for the asteroid to enter the field of view. The maps should work for most locations on the planet, but don’t be surprised if 1998 QE2 arrives a bit early (or late) and tracks a bit north or south of the plotted path. Look around a little instead of staring at the exact spot you’re expecting to see it.

Once you find it, hold on tight for the ride. Don’t let go – at least for a few minutes. It’s fun to  jump on an asteroid and go for a cruise across the star fields. You may even see its light vary as tiny world rotates on its axis, presenting first one side and then another to your eyes. My favorite moments are when an asteroid passes really close to a star, making its motion obvious in seconds. Zoom!

To get hi-res versions of all three maps that you can print out and use at the telescope, just click each image. That’ll take you to my Flickr site. Right-click each map and select “Original” and then make a print out. If you have your own night sky program, go HERE to grab 1998 QE2’s orbital elements and create your own charts.

Good luck and may you find your lucky asteroid.

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