Asteroid 2012 TC4 is on its way to Earth – and astronomers are coming together to track it
Asteroids have the potential to destroy every living thing on this planet. If another asteroid the size of the one believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs were to hit again, there would be nothing we could do to stop it.
This is why researchers around the world are dedicating their work to improving our understanding of space rocks, and, in particular, learning how to predict where they will strike – the first step towards defending our planet. Now, we have an opportunity to test just how successful this research has been.
Tomorrow, on the 12 October, an asteroid called 2012 TC4 will pass close by Earth, at about a tenth of the distance between the moon and our planet. This event will be used as an opportunity for asteroid-trackers globally to test their ability to work together, monitor and predict the movement of an asteroid.
At a safe distance of 26,000 miles (42,000 km), the asteroid measuring 45 to 100ft (15 to 30 metres) will pass just over the orbital altitude of our communication satellites. Its closest point to Earth will be above Antarctica.
As it passes over our planet, telescopes will study it in all frequencies, from visible to infrared. This is being treated as a test to see how well the global asteroid-spotting network works together.
“Asteroid trackers are using this flyby to test the worldwide asteroid detection and tracking network, assessing our capability to work together in response to finding a potential real asteroid-impact threat,” said Michael Kelley, program scientist at the NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO).
It will be moving very fast and won’t appear very bright, so it is unlikely to be spotted by amateur astronomers.
The asteroid was first spotted in 2012, and its position was monitored in 2014 and late July this year.
“This campaign is a team effort that involves more than a dozen observatories, universities and labs around the globe so we can collectively learn the strengths and limitations of our near-Earth object observation capabilities,” said Vishnu Reddy, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson.
“This effort will exercise the entire system, to include the initial and follow-up observations, precise orbit determination, and international communications.”