Sometimes, NASA gets to have a bit of fun — with asteroids. This autumn, the agency will have a grand ol’ time with one such object called 2012 TC4, which will whizz past us at a comfortable distance of about 4,200 miles (6,800 kilometres) at its absolute closest. Since the asteroid is pretty small — only about 30 to 100 feet (roughly nine to 30 metres) across — this is the perfect chance for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office to test out its techniques.
By no means does this mean NASA is preparing for the end of the world, as some outlets are erroneously suggesting. As badly as we all would like an asteroid to hit us squarely in the face, this sort of testing is actually pretty standard, and is just meant to be practice should a near-earth object get a little too close for comfort.
“We run these little exercises every so often,” Dr. Michael Kelley, an astronomer at NASA’s Planetary Science Division, told Gizmodo. “We’ve known that this one has been around, even though the orbit isn’t as well-defined as we’d like. There’s no threat of it hitting Earth, but we want to know if our network and the connections we’ve made with other countries and observatories is going to work for us when we need it to.”
Later this autumn, the asteroid will become more easily visible to NASA scientists looking for it. Kelley said astronomers will be able to see it from NASA’s InfraRed Telescope Facility in Hawaii.
“In October, we’ll wait for the close flyby to use to use some of the telescopes that are instrumented the way we need them to characterise the object,” Kelley explained. “[If] we were concerned about it hitting the Earth, this is exactly what we’d do: we’d try to recover it — the best guess of where [the asteroid] will be and when — and as it got brighter and closer, we’d be able to go to smaller and smaller telescopes. So we’re pretty much following the procedure of what we’d do in a real-world scenario.”
So for everyone who was hoping for NASA to pull a Michael Bay and nuke an asteroid: we’re sorry. (Maybe we’ll have that option available in the future.) But you know what’s really punk rock? BEING PREPARED.