Testing Our Tracking Abilities

NASA scientists have led a multi-national team of astronomers in the first international exercise testing our ability to track dangerous asteroids. Their goal? To "recover, track, and characterize a real asteroid as a potential impactor," according to a NASA press release.

The 2-meter telescope at the Terksol Observatory provided follow-up astrometry of asteroid 2012 TC4. Image credit: INASAN / NASA

Leaders at NASA — as well as many other scientists and intellectuals — have been concerned for some time about the possibility of large dangerous asteroids impacting Earth. While such an occurrence may not wipe out all of humanity, it could certainly cause a great amount of damage and devastation.

To this end, NASA has developed ways to detect and deflect hazardous asteroids, and train other scientists to do the same. This particular exercise was especially important because it allowed the scientists to test our International Asteroid Warning Network, the responsibility of which is to track dangerous asteroids.

Image of Asteroid 2012 TC4 taken by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope. Image Credit: NASA

After months of planning, the exercise launched into high gear in July when astronomers at the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope spotted the asteroid 2012 TC4 — a small, reflective asteroid that was on a path that passed close to Earth. The scientists chose TC4 as their target for the exercise, which was thereafter nicknamed the "TC4 Observation Campaign."

Better Prepared for Dangerous Asteroids

As TC4 approached Earth, the scientists worked together to analyze the asteroid's size, composition, and trajectory. Insuring that international communication channels were in place for fast and effective information sharing was a key aspect of the exercise.

"The 2012 TC4 campaign was a superb opportunity for researchers to demonstrate willingness and readiness to participate in serious international cooperation in addressing the potential hazard to Earth posed by [near-Earth objects]," said Boris Shustov, science director for the Institute of Astronomy at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "I am pleased to see how scientists from different countries effectively and enthusiastically worked together toward a common goal."

How 2012 TC4's heliocentric orbit has changed due to the 2012 and 2017 close encounters with Earth. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The astronomers' observations allowed them to confirm that TC4 will not impact Earth in any of its future orbits. Additionally, they were able to determine the asteroid's composition as well as its spinning and tumbling behavior, information that will be vital if we ever delve into asteroid mining.

The exercise's finale occurred in October when TC4 made its closest approach to Earth, passing 43,780 kilometers (27,200 miles) over our heads.

Flight of Asteroid 2012 TC4. Image Credit: NASA

NASA took this project as an opportunity to test its communication pathways within the U.S. government, sending messages across agencies and even through the executive branch. This simulation of a real impact emergency allowed the astronomy community to become "much better prepared today to deal with the threat of a potentially hazardous asteroid," said Michael Kelley, TC4 exercise lead at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

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