Asteroid trackers around the world will today test asteroid warning systems on an asteroid passing Earth.
The asteroid, named 2012 TC4, was first spotted 5 years ago, but will today pass Earth at a distance of about 42,000km (26,000 miles), which will bring it within the Moon’s orbit.
Its close approach to Earth will give trackers the chance to test a growing global observing network who will communicate and coordinate their optical and radar observations in a real scenario.
“This campaign is a team effort that involves more than a dozen observatories, universities and labs around the globe so we can collectively learn the strengths and limitations of our near-Earth object observation capabilities,” said Vishnu Reddy, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, who is leading the 2012 TC4 campaign.
“This effort will exercise the entire system, to include the initial and follow-up observations, precise orbit determination, and international communications.”
Orbit prediction experts say the asteroid, which measures somewhere between 15m and 30m (50-100ft) in size, poses no risk of impact with Earth.
However, when a similar sized asteroid exploded over Chelyabinsk in central Russia in 2013 it produced 30 times the kinetic energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and caused a shockwave that resulted in damage to buildings and injured more than a thousand people.
Observers around the world have been tracking TC4 as it approaches Earth and reporting their observations to the Minor Planet Center, where the conclusion has been made that it poses no threat and merely provides a platform to test for real asteroid impacts.
No asteroid currently known is predicted to impact Earth for the next 100 years.
“Asteroid trackers are using this flyby to test the worldwide asteroid detection and tracking network, assessing our capability to work together in response to finding a potential real asteroid-impact threat,” said Michael Kelley, program scientist and NASA lead for the TC4 observation campaign.
Tens of professionally run telescopes across the globe will be taking ground-based observations from visible to near-infrared to radar.
Amateur astronomers may contribute more observations, but the asteroid will be very difficult for backyard astronomers to see, as current estimates are that it will reach a visual magnitude of only about 17 at its brightest, and it will be moving very fast across the sky.