Asteroid flyby will test NASA’s defense skills

For the first time, NASA will use an actual asteroid for an observational campaign to test its network of observatories and scientists who work on planetary defense.

The asteroid, named 2012 TC4, will do a close flyby on October 12, 2017, but don’t worry. It doesn’t pose a threat to Earth.

asteroid flyby gif
This animation depicts the safe flyby of asteroid 2012 TC4 as it passes under Earth on October 12, 2017. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA has conducted such preparedness drills rehearsing various aspects of an asteroid impact, such as deflection, evacuation, and disaster relief, with other entities in the past.

Traditionally, however, these exercises involved hypothetical impactors, prompting Vishnu Reddy, an assistant professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, to propose a slightly more realistic scenario—one that revolves around an actual close approach of a near-Earth asteroid, or NEA.

“The question is: How prepared are we for the next cosmic threat?” says Reddy, an assistant professor of planetary science at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “So we proposed an observational campaign to exercise the network and test how ready we are for a potential impact by a hazardous asteroid.”

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, or PDCO, the federal entity in charge of coordinating efforts to protect Earth from hazardous asteroids, accepted Reddy’s idea to conduct an observational campaign as part of assessing its Earth-based defense network and identified the upcoming close approach of 2012 TC4 as a good opportunity to conduct the exercise.

The goal of the TC4 exercise is to recover, track, and characterize 2012 TC4 as a potential impactor in order to exercise the entire system from observations, modeling, prediction, and communication.

Measuring between 30 and 100 feet, roughly the same size as the asteroid that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, on February 15, 2013, TC4 was discovered by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on October 5, 2012, at Haleakala Observatory on Maui, Hawaii. Given its orbital uncertainty, the asteroid will pass as close as 6,800 kilometers (4,200 miles) above the Earth’s surface.

“This is a team effort that involves more than a dozen observatories, universities, and labs across the globe so we can collectively learn the strengths and limitations of our planetary defense capabilities,” Reddy says.

Spacecraft to practice nudging asteroids away from us

Since its discovery in 2012, the uncertainty in the asteroid’s orbit has slowly increased, as it would for any asteroid as time passes. Therefore, the first order of business will be to “recover” the object—in other words, nail down its exact path. Researchers hope that depending on its predicted brightness, the asteroid will be visible again to large ground-based telescopes in early August.

The University of Arizona is home to the Catalina Sky Survey and the Spacewatch project that recovers and tracks faint NEAs. Both teams will take part in the planetary defense exercise.

Source: University of Arizona