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Asteroid 1998 QE2 will zoom past Earth as you head home today

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By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News

(NBC) - 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  near-Earth asteroid won't pose any threat to our planet: Its orbit will bring it no closer than 3.6 million miles 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.

When Asteroid 1998 QE2 makes its closest approach to Earth on May 31, 2013, it promises to be a bonanza for radar science. Watch a video from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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.

A May 28 image from the Slooh Space Camera Online Telescope shows 1998 QE2 in the center of the frame. Background stars show up as streaks because the telescope was moving to keep its focus on the asteroid.

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.

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.

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