The Beast is coming! The Beast is coming! The warnings raged throughout the sky-watching and asteroid-fearing communities, not to mention in places where cooler heads prevail, that an asteroid the size of an aircraft carrier, earning it the nickname The Beast, would pass close to Earth (within 800,000 miles – a space whisker!) on June 8th. Well, pass it did and at a distance that allowed us to see that it’s not a beast at all – it’s more like a cute space peanut.
The asteroid 2014 HQ124 was discovered in April, giving astronomers time to plan for some sophisticated photo ops. For four hours, they beamed radar signals at the asteroid using the 230-foot (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California. The signals bounced off and were picked up by the 1,000-foot (305) meter Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico. Both facilities are known for their abilities to discern features on asteroids and the use of both in tandem enhanced the images.
In addition to the excellent details of depressions, sharp craggy hills and possible boulders, the images show that 2014 HQ124 is shaped somewhat like a peanut. In astronomical terms, that could make it a ‘contact binary’ – a space object formed from the union of two smaller objects. Around 15 percent of asteroids are contact binaries and generally formed when asteroids collide and smaller parts join back together. The presence of boulders on 2014 HQ124 makes this the likely cause. A famous contact binary is 25143 Itokawa, an asteroid visited in 2005 by the Japanese space probe Hayabusa.
It seems most observers were surprised by the look of 2014 HQ124. Alessondra Springmann, a data analyst at Arecibo Observatory, put it best:
These radar observations show that the asteroid is a beauty, not a beast.
Beauty or beast, just don’t get too close.