Quirks & Quarks

Scientists doing a dry run for a catastrophic asteroid collision with Earth

An asteroid that will fly by the Earth on Thursday is being used as a test exercise for impact preparedness by observatories and scientists around the world.

The asteroid

On Thursday, Oct. 12, asteroid 2012 TC4 will come within 50,000 kilometres of Earth as it flies by us. The asteroid — named for the year in which is was first discovered  — is about 15 metres in diameter. The close approach provides an opportunity for NASA to test its network of observatories and scientists around the world who work in planetary defence.  It is the first time a real asteroid has been used in such an exercise.

The exercise

Scientists at observatories around the world will gather data about TC4's location, orbit, and composition, as well as characterize how it moves. One of those scientists is Dr. Vishnu Reddy from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, who conceived the idea of using a real asteroid and will also lead the exercise. The flyby of TC4 will test the worldwide asteroid detection and tracking network and assess NASA's capability to work with international partners in response to a potential real asteroid threat.

The 'what if'?

It is important for scientists who track asteroids to accurately locate them in order to plan a response. The exercise involving TC4 has been underway for about six months, but it is hoped to one day plan a response using time periods as short as one week. If this asteroid was on a collision course with Earth, it would burn up in our atmosphere, posing no threat. Previously NASA has conducted modelled drills preparing for asteroid impact, possible deflection, evacuation and disaster relief.