An asteroid’s about to pass Earth, but NASA’s on the case

You wouldn’t be blamed for letting asteroid 2012 TC4 literally and figuratively pass you by. The 2012 TC4 – not the catchiest of names – hurtled past us at a quarter of the distance between Earth and the Moon back in 2012. And according to a projection of its orbit, it’s due for a reappearance on 12 October of this year. Cue NASA, which has spotted an excellent opportunity to try out its planetary defence system.

An asteroid’s about to pass Earth, but NASA’s on the case

It’s a grandiose name, but NASA’s planetary defence system has a simple enough objective: it aims to discern and monitor potentially dangerous space material, in turn liaising with the US government to form a defence strategy if a threat emerges. Sort of like Earth is playing football with space, and NASA is our goalie. (Nope, I’m not an MIT alumnus).

The folks at NASA aren’t entirely sure of its path (somewhere in the region of 4,200 to 170,000 miles – that’s 6,760 to 274,000km – from Earth), but they’re sure that it’s not on a collision course. With us, at least. Phew. It is, however, an excellent opportunity for NASA to put its formidable-sounding planetary defence system to the test.

“It will be incumbent upon the observatories to get a fix on the asteroid as it approaches, and work together to obtain follow-up observations that make more refined asteroid orbit determinations possible,” explains Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Centre for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). A prime opportunity for NASA to flex its muscles, then. “This effort will exercise the entire system, to include the initial and follow-up observations, precise orbit determination, and international communications,” concurred Vishnu Reddy, leader of the 2012 TC4 observation campaign.

So yes, we’re due a (relatively) close encounter with an asteroid come October. But it’s not yet time to start tying up any loose ends; it’s just an opportunity for NASA to ameliorate its worldwide defence system. After a reportedly fatal incident last year, that 9-30m ball of mass currently hurtling towards is actually cause to sleep sounder at night. Shhh, now. NASA’s got you.

Image: Billy Brown, used under Creative Commons

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