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QE2 asteroid will fly by Earth, stay safe 3.6 million miles away at closest approach on Friday

asteroid QE2.jpg

On May 31, 2013, asteroid 1998 QE2 will sail serenely past Earth, getting no closer than about 3.6 million miles, or about 15 times the distance between Earth and the moon.NASA/JPL-Caltech

QE2 is set to sail ... at thousands of miles per second.

An asteroid more than 1½ miles long -- with the same name as the famous cruise ship -- will zoom past Earth this week from a far-off distance.

The big rock is called Asteroid 1998 QE2 officially, and it will make its closest approach Friday. It will keep a safe distance of 3.6 million miles, or 15 times the distance between Earth and the moon. You won't be able to see it without a powerful telescope.

'With radar we can transform an object from a point of light into a small world.'

- Radar astronomer Lance Benner

"Asteroid 1998 QE2 will be an outstanding radar imaging target," said radar astronomer Lance Benner, the principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

"Whenever an asteroid approaches this closely, it provides an important scientific opportunity to study it in detail to understand its size, shape, rotation, surface features, and what they can tell us about its origin. We will also use new radar measurements of the asteroid's distance and velocity to improve our calculation of its orbit and compute its motion farther into the future than we could otherwise."

It's believed to be about 1.7 miles long, or about nine times the length of the Queen Elizabeth 2 cruise ship. But that has nothing to do with its name. The letters and number in the name represent the timing and sequence of the asteroid's discovery in 1998.

Scientists will use large radar telescopes to study its shape, rotation and surface features.

"It is tremendously exciting to see detailed images of this asteroid for the first time," Benner said. "With radar we can transform an object from a point of light into a small world with its own unique set of characteristics."

Asteroids, which are always exposed to the sun, can be shaped like almost anything under it, NASA said. Those previously imaged by radar and spacecraft have looked like dog bones, bowling pins, spheroids, diamonds, muffins, and potatoes. To find out what 1998 QE2 looks like, stay tuned.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.