NASA is stretching its muscles on how to respond to a threatening asteroid by having its network of observatories track a real asteroid as if was on a collision course with our planet. The object, called 2012 TC4, is not a threat and will whiz above our skies on October 12, 2017.
This is the first time NASA will use a real object in one of its asteroid preparation drills. Previous exercises have been more theoretical, trying to work out how to approach a hypothetical crisis and the best approach to solve it without casualties. Using an actual space rock will bring a more realistic dimension to the rehearsal, which is why Professor Vishnu Reddy of the University of Arizona suggested it.
"The question is: How prepared are we for the next cosmic threat?" Reddy said in a statement. "So we proposed an observational campaign to exercise the network and test how ready we are for a potential impact by a hazardous asteroid."
The campaign is part of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), a federal group in charge of coordinating efforts to detect and defend Earth from cosmic threats. The specific exercise will test the entire system, assessing everything from observations and modeling to prediction and communications.
"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," said Reddy, who is coordinating the campaign for NASA PDCO.
It’s not just about our tech, it’s also about the asteroid. We only observed 2012 TC4 for about a week, which didn’t allow us to produce a detailed model of its body and orbital parameter. We estimate it to be between 10 and 31 meters (33 to 102 feet) and should likely pass as close as 13,200 kilometers from Earth or as far as 433,200 kilometers (8,200-269,200 miles). Researchers are certain that 2012 TC4 won’t get any closer than 6,800 kilometers (4,225 miles) from the surface of our planet.
The team hope that 2012 TC4 will become visible to the largest ground-based telescope in early August. This will help to track it. Discovering these objects depends very much on their surface brightness, with many dangerous ones come incredibly close to our planet before we can identify them. This risk and our lack of a deflection plan have many people concerned about the general level of preparedness the human race has against a cosmic collision.