It sounds like a surprise challenge posed by the “Dungeon Master” in a game of Dungeons & Dragons but this is sort of what happened on a cosmic scale on Feb. 6, 2017, when the 200-meter (656-foot) -wide asteroid 2017 BQ6 passed by Earth. Using the radar imaging capabilities of the giant 70-meter antenna at NASA’s DSN facility in Goldstone, CA, scientists got a good look at the object as it passed—and it does seem to resemble a tumbling gaming die!
“The radar images show relatively sharp corners, flat regions, concavities, and small bright spots that may be boulders,” said Lance Benner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who leads the agency’s asteroid radar research program. “Asteroid 2017 BQ6 reminds me of the dice used when playing Dungeons and Dragons. It is certainly more angular than most near-Earth asteroids imaged by radar.”
The animation above is made from 25 separate radar images acquired on Feb. 6 and 7 as BQ6 passed safely by at a distance of 6.6 times the distance between Earth and the Moon, or about 1.6 million miles. The individual radar images have resolutions as fine as 12 feet per pixel.
There was no danger of an impact by this asteroid, but observing it and others like it give scientists a better idea of its shape, surface qualities, rotational speed, and possible future trajectory.
Whether or not this really looks like a 10, 12, or 20-sided die is subjective—as a long-time D&D gamer myself I can’t quite make out the shape of any of those—but I could definitely imagine numbers on the various sides of BQ6 as it tumbles along in its orbit around the Sun. Either way, let’s hope Earth always makes its saving throw vs. impact!
2017 BQ6 was discovered on Jan. 26 by the NASA-funded Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) Project, operated by MIT Lincoln Laboratory on the Air Force Space Command’s Space Surveillance Telescope at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.