The test will make sure the asteroid defence system is working properly.
This week, an asteroid is going to fly very close to the Earth. Don’t worry, it won’t hit anything. NASA scientists are unable to track its exact position. However, they’re sure that it won’t get closer than about 6 437 kilometers. (About 20 times the distance to the space station.) But just because it won’t hit us doesn’t mean it’s not important. NASA scientists are planning to use this asteroid to test how well we’d handle an asteroid on a real collision course.
Testing the asteroid defence system
“Scientists have always appreciated knowing when an asteroid will make a close approach to and safely pass the Earth because they can make preparations to collect data to characterize and learn as much as possible about it,” says NASA scientist Michael Kelley. “This time we are adding in another layer of effort, using this asteroid flyby to test the worldwide asteroid detection and tracking network, assessing our capability to work together in response to finding a potential real asteroid threat.”
This means NASA has coordinated with observatories around the world to try and get an exact trajectory for the asteroid in the days leading up to the flyby. The hope is the observations will narrow down the possible path of the asteroid.
“This is the perfect target for such an exercise because while we know the orbit of 2012 TC4 well enough to be absolutely certain it will not impact Earth, we haven’t established its exact path just yet,” says Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies.
This experiment will test how well NASA can determine the orbit of a newly detected asteroid that might pose a danger to us. If the agency can successfully track an asteroid of this size, it would then be possible to determine where it is likely to impact the planet. Then, we could decide whether or not we need to intercept it.
If everything goes according to plan, NASA will be able to predict exactly how far away from us the asteroid will pass on Thursday. Fortunately, we won’t need to try and intercept it, but NASA is going to test that part of our planetary defense system in a few years.