That's No Space Station! Asteroid 1998 QE2 Has a Moon

QE2 astroid has a moon.
QE2 astroid has a moon.

When astronomers analyzed radar readings to create their first maps of 1998 QE2, the big asteroid that's due to sail past Earth on Friday, they were surprised to find that it has a moon twice as big as an ocean liner.

1998 QE2 itself is way bigger: The latest readings from NASA's Deep Space Network antenna in Goldstone, Calif., are consistent with earlier estimates that the asteroid is about 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers wide). But the moon is hefty as well. Astronomers estimate its diameter at 2,000 feet (600 meters). That's big enough to wipe out an area of the size of Virginia if it were to strike land.

Fortunately, neither space rock will come any closer than 3.6 million miles (5.8 million kilometers), or about 15 times the distance between Earth and the moon, during a flyby that reaches its climax at 4:59 p.m. ET Friday.

Even though Earth is in no danger, the close encounter is stirring up interest because it gives astronomers a rare opportunity to see an asteroid up close. Such observations could helpNASA plan for efforts as the Osiris-Rex mission, which will bring back a sample from the asteroid Bennu in 2023; and an even more ambitious mission to corral an asteroid by the mid-2020s.

Goldstone's first radar observations of 1998 QE2 were made on Wednesday evening, producing images with a resolution of about 250 feet (75 meters) per pixel. The pictures show that QE2 has a rotation period of less than four hours, and is marked by several dark surface features that are suggestive of large craters. In an image advisory, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says that the image resolution will get better as more radar readings become available, from Goldstone as well as the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

More from NBC News:

1998 QE2's flyby generates online buzz

It's bigger than an ocean liner and flying past us

Cosmic Log archive on asteroids