NASA test­ing as­teroid warn­ing net­work

Lethbridge Herald - - HEADLINE NEWS -

NASA is us­ing an as­teroid’s close flyby to test Earth’s warn­ing net­work for in­com­ing space rocks.

The small as­teroid was on track to pass within 27,200 miles (43,800 kilo­me­tres) of Antarc­tica early to­day.

Pro­gram sci­en­tist Michael Kel­ley said that’s “pretty close” as these things go. But he stressed there’s no chance it will hit us. Fu­ture space rocks might, though — thus this first-of-its-kind cos­mic fire drill.

“You never ex­pect your of­fice build­ing to catch fire and to be trapped in there, but you have fire drills any­way,” he said Wednesday. “That’s what I’ve been us­ing as kind of an anal­ogy to what we’re do­ing here.”

Ob­ser­va­to­ries world­wide — part of the In­ter­na­tional As­teroid Warn­ing Net­work — have been zoom­ing in on the as­teroid called 2012 TC4 for weeks to test com­mu­ni­ca­tion and co-or­di­na­tion. Kel­ley said it’s gone well.

Un­til now, re­searchers re­lied on “table­top” tests, sim­u­la­tions with no ac­tual as­ter­oids in­volved. The ex­er­cise will con­tinue for an­other week, as ob­ser­va­to­ries keep track­ing the as­teroid as it de­parts Earth’s neigh­bour­hood.

First spot­ted in 2012 and then dis­ap­pear­ing from view un­til this past July, the as­teroid is es­ti­mated to mea­sure 45 feet to 100 feet (14 to 30 me­tres.). Kel­ley said as­tronomers should have a bet­ter han­dle on the shape and size of the rock — which they be­lieve is ob­long, like a potato — in com­ing days and weeks.

Sci­en­tists picked this par­tic­u­lar as­teroid be­cause they knew it did not threaten Earth, yet had some un­cer­tainty in its path. That un­cer­tainty is what pro­vided the chal­lenge for ob­servers, all vol­un­teers in this pro­ject. They are us­ing ma­jor tele­scopes in Hawaii and Ari­zona, among other places.

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