John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Earthquakes! Buildings knocked over! Wrangler jeans spontaneously combusting! What will (not) happen in your city?
At 4:59 EDT today, the speeding Asteroid 1998 QE2 will make its closest approach to earth. Astronomers the planet over are craning their necks to get a look at this thing, because it's a real brute – most asteroids are less than a kilometer wide, but QE2 measures 2.7 kilometers (1.7 miles). That makes it "one of the big ones," according to NASA, that would "cause global catastrophe" if it smashed into Earth.
Look, the space agency's even made a fun diagram to illustrate its unusually corpulent body, which stretches on for more than the length of nine cruise ships. Not pictured is its moon (a small percentage of asteroids have one or more moons):
And here's a radar image of it approaching Earth:
But – Spoiler Alert – this guy will not be obliterating civilizations today. At its nearest, it will still be about 3.6 million miles away, or 15 times the distance from us to the moon. That means we're free to go about our Friday business, which, if you happen to work in the media, can mean making nail-biting "What if?" stories about the whopping death and destruction a big asteroid strike would cause.
Please welcome back our friend, Impact Calculator from the NASA funded site Killer Asteroids. Last we met, the grim prognosticator was ginning up all kinds of fiery mayhem that could've resulted from (but not really) February's close pass with Asteroid 2012 DA14. Plotting ground-rippling megathumps from today's space boulder is even more fun because of the extreme wreckage it would cause. As the calculator optimistically notes: "Impacts like this occur every two million years or so. The damage would cover a medium-sized state, but it still wouldn't lead to global extinctions."
Here are a few scenarios depicting an asteroid strike's rings of woe. Remember, blue is "first-degree burns," green is "clothing ignites," pale yellow is "steel buildings knocked over" and egg-yolk yellow is "7.0 earthquake." Here's New York City:
While you won't see the asteroid barreling down on you out of the bright blue skies today, you will be able to spot it during the first week of June when it turns a bright side toward Earth. Just get a telescope and look in these locations marked by NASA: