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Arecibo Telescope captures stunning image of massive asteroid as it passes Earth

A team of astronomers relying on the Arecibo radio telescope have captured a stunning image of 1998 QE2’s close encounter with Earth, and it led to a few surprises.

According to astronomers, the Arecibo’s 300-meter-wide dish was able to bounce a series of radio signals off of the massive space rock as it passed by Earth, missing us by just six million kilometers.  By measuring how quickly the signals returned to Earth, astronomers were able to map the surface of the asteroid.

Once the asteroid was mapped, astronomers were able to better understand its composition. The first image, which was obtained less than 48 hours before the asteroid passed Earth, showed a small moon orbiting the asteroid. The moon’s existence, which surprised scientists, allowed them to calculate the asteroid’s mass. The second image, according to NASA, showed more detail of the surface of the asteroid. The space agency noted  the image is far from a traditional photo, and that it was created by using a technique known as delayed-doppler. By bouncing radio signals off the surface of the asteroid, astronomers were able to differentiate between smooth, unmarked areas and rougher, pot-marked regions on the asteroid.

Then, once the asteroid’s mass and composition was determined, astronomers, using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii, determined the asteroid could reveal a large amount of information regarding the early days of the solar system. According to NASA, early indication seem to support the theory that the asteroid has barely changed over the course of billions of years and it is likely to be categorized as a “primitive” space rock.

The image could provide both private space companies and international space agencies with a better understanding of how asteroid move and evolve through the solar system. NASA has attempted to catalogue some of the larger asteroids known to inhabit the solar system, including some 10,000 objects over one-mile in length.

The discovery comes as NASA has announced plans for a new program aimed at stopping an asteroid impact. The space agency, which announced the challenge on Wednesday, says it hopes to build support for some of its more ambitious ideas, including the possibility of building solar-powered spacecraft capable of slowly shifting the trajectory of an asteroid. The program, dubbed ARM (Asteroid Redirect Mission), will likely require upwards of $100 million in funding for the first phase of the mission, although some have warned that it is likely to eventually cost nearly $1 billion dollars.

The space agency is also focusing its resources on capturing a nearby asteroid and placing it in orbit around the moon. NASA scientists say the asteroid would provide researchers with a abundance of data on how the solar system came to be and how asteroids are formed. That information may someday prove useful in the event of an impending asteroid impact, according to experts.  It remains unclear whether NASA will have the necessary funding to capture an asteroid. A number of experts have noted that there are a limited number of asteroids that fit NASA’s mission goal, however, the program remains in its early days.

The asteroid, which captured worldwide attention in May, was one of the largest asteroid ever to pass Earth. 1998 QE2 was first discovered in 1998 by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program in New Mexico.