NASA completes first asteroid tracking test
AN INTERNATIONAL team of astronomers has successfully completed the first international drill using a real asteroid to test global response capabilities.
The target of the exercise was asteroid 2012 TC4, an elongated rock about 15 metres long and roughly eight metres wide, which was known to be approaching the earth.
The goal of the “TC4 Observation Campaign,” launched in April under the sponsorship of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) planetary defence co-ordination office, is to recover, track and characterise a real asteroid as a potential impactor, and to test the International Asteroid Warning Network for hazardous asteroid observations, modelling, prediction and communication.
The exercise started in earnest in late July, when the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope recovered the asteroid. The finale was a close approach to Earth in mid October.
On October 12, TC4 safely passed earth at a distance of only about 43,780 kilometres above planet’s surface.
In the months leading up to the flyby, the international team of astronomers from the US, Canada, Colombia, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan the Netherlands, Russia and South Africa led by NASA scientists all tracked TC4 from ground — and used space-based telescopes to study its orbit, shape, rotation and composition.
The observations that revealed the shape and confirmed the composition of the asteroid came from astronomers using Nasa’s Goldstone Deep Space Network antenna in California, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s 100-metre Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia — both in the US — according to Nasa.
“We demonstrated that we could organise a large, worldwide observation campaign on a short timeline, and communicate results efficiently,” said Vishnu Reddy of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, who led the observation campaign.
Michael Kelley, TC4 exercise lead at Nasa headquarters in Washington, said, “We are much better prepared today to deal with the threat of a potentially hazardous asteroid than we were before the TC4 campaign.”
A Nasa graphic depicts the Earth flyby of asteroid 2012DA14 in 2013.