Asteroid 1998 QE2 passed within 3.2 million miles of Earth, and as predicted, continued on its way. The asteroid, nearly two miles in diameter, came complete with its own tiny moon in orbit around it. While this one was not a danger to Earth, should an object as large actually hit our planet, the devastation would bring mankind and probably all other animals, if not most life, to an end.

Could this actually happen? Odds are, one day it probably will, but that day might not be soon. This is because the configuration of our solar system makes such events extremely rare. This is because the massive gravity of the outlying gas giants, especially Jupiter, operate as a sort of cosmic vacuum cleaner, sucking rocks and debris safely into their own gravity wells instead of allowing them to wander in among the vulnerable inner planets.

1998 QE2 was an exception, and is by far the largest such object in years to pass within a few million miles of Earth.

Had it been aiming at us, could we have prevented it from hitting our planet? Right now, the answer is no. To give us time to prepare countermeasures, asteroids need to be detected long before they strike Earth. Because so many of them are made of metal that tends to be dark in color, they are extremely difficult for astronomers to see. So far, scientists at the Near Earth Object Tracking Program have counted more than 9,000 near-Earth asteroids, but none that we know for certain are destined to hit the planet. Another 800 or so are found each year.

The image is a Goldstone radar image of 1998 QE2 showing the object’s moon as a bright spark near the larger body itself.

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