NASA us­ing as­teroid close flyby to test warn­ing net­work

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - WORLD NEWS - MARCIA DUNN

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — 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 43,800 kilo­me­tres of Antarc­tica early Thurs­day.

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 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, as more ob­ser­va­tions pour in.

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. Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Ob­ser­va­tory got knocked out by last month’s Hur­ri­cane Maria and could not take part.

Back­yard as­tronomers have lit­tle chance of see­ing the as­teroid, ac­cord­ing to Kel­ley, given its speed and faint­ness. It won’t be vis­i­ble with the naked eye. The clos­est ap­proach: 1:40 a.m. EDT Thurs­day.

The com­mu­ni­ca­tion lines for the test have ex­tended all the way to the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency and even the White House, ac­cord­ing to Kel­ley, who’s lead­ing the ef­fort for NASA’s Plan­e­tary De­fence Co­or­di­na­tion Of­fice.

An­other test — us­ing an­other ac­tual as­teroid headed harm­lessly our way — is planned in the next few years.

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