On June 8th the asteroid 2014 HQ124 whizzed past the Earth at a distance of 1.25 million km. NASA has provided remarkably detailed images of the 370m long object, revealing features as small as 4m wide.
The first five images are taken by using the giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to collect radar signals bounced off the asteroid from the 70m dish at Goldstone, California. The rest were taken with a smaller dish near the Goldstone collecting the reflected signals, which is why they are much darker.
The images can be seen as a video below. Each image represents ten minutes of data:
It is thought the two lobes may once have been separate asteroids that fused to produce the bowling pin shape we see. "This may be a double object, or 'contact binary,' consisting of two objects that form a single asteroid with a lobed shape," said Lance Benner of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
By coincidence, The Beast, as the asteroid has been named, rotates once every 24 hours.
Asteroids passing at three times the distance of the moon usually don't attract much attention, but the Beast, while no “dinosaur killer” is large enough to do serious damage. “This would definitely be catastrophic if it hit Earth. You'd end up with a crater about 3 miles across," said Dr Mark Boslough of the Sandia National Laboratories . "An event like that would break windows over 100 kilometers away." Appropriately, Boslough, an asteroid expert as well as defender of science has had a space rock, 73520 Boslough named after him, although its orbit puts it safely out of reach of Earth.
Moreover, having only been discovered on April 23, the Beast serves as a reminder of the value of programs to identify threats from space. We are thought to have discovered almost all of the inner solar system objects large enough to endanger civilization, but plenty that we'd much prefer to have plenty of warning about are still out there undetected.
A simulation of the Beast's orbit can be seen here :