This October 12, an approaching asteroid, delightfully named 2012 TC4, will safely pass by Earth. Earlier this year NASA announced that this would be used as a test of their planetary defence systems. Although relatively close, there will remain a substantial distance between Earth and 2012 TC4, with initial calculations between 6,800 and 270,000 kilometres.
Since the date of the statement, observations have already been made of the asteroid; the first by astronomers at the Very Large Telescope of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) during late July and early August. These observations have allowed for further calculations on original estimates, estimating a 43,500-kilometre distance between Earth and 2012 TC4; roughly an eighth of the distance to the Moon.
“This is the perfect target for such an exercise because while we know the orbit of 2012 TC4 well enough to be absolutely certain it will not impact Earth, we haven’t established its exact path just yet,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Centre for Near-Earth Object Studies the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California
The asteroid, which is between 10 and 30 meters in size, has been of interest to NASA’s tracking and detection network as they calculate 2012 TC4’s trajectory as it passes by Earth. Further observations are in the works by NASA and other astronomers which include those within the International Asteroid Warning Network as they treat the event as a worldwide training exercise.
The astronomical event has given light to numerous conspiracy theories; many of which predict the end of the world and blame an “unknown planet” Nibiru – which NASA states, does not exist.
This is remarkably similar to the claims of a world-ending event caused by this apparently unknown planet last month. NASA rebuffed the theories, releasing a statement saying Nibiru does not exist and if a planet were heading for a collision course it “would be visible by now to the naked eye.” Past dates on which Earth was reportedly due for a catastrophic event have come and gone and yet once again, another theory has gained traction due to misleading journalism and false claims by conspiracy theorists.
Asteroids have been the talk of the town recently, as NASA spacecraft OSIRIS-Rex is currently headed for the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. On September 23, the spacecraft used Earth’s gravity to slingshot itself towards its target. On its 7-year mission, OSIRIS-REx will reach the asteroid and take samples before returning to Earth. There are hopes that this will provide insights for scientists into how planets formed, the beginnings of life, as well as the composition of asteroids which one day may pose a threat to Earth.
On September 3, the first observed asteroid of its size to fly so close to Earth, Florence, flew past Earth at 230 million kilometres above. The 4.4km wide asteroid has two moons – the third ‘triple” ever discovered of more than 16,000 known near-Earth asteroids and was big enough to be visible with a small telescope. The asteroid, first discovered in 1981 in Australia by an American Astronomer Schelte “Bobby” Bus, was named after Florence Nightingale – widely regarded as the founder of modern nursing.
If you still want to learn more about asteroids check out one of our October planetarium shows ‘Incoming!’ Discover how asteroids and comets have collided with our planet throughout its history, changing the course of life on Earth and shaping the world we know today. Or have a look at this video which looks at the question of what is being done to avoid any potential asteroid collisions with Earth; a highly unlikely event, but one worth studying!