The blockbuster hit “Armageddon” showed Bruce Willis saving the entire planet by executing an asteroid destruction method that was more science fiction than possibility. Although many people wonder about the validity of a space projectile actually hitting the planet, scientists know that it’s a definite possibility, and NASA has not been idle on addressing the threat of a planet killing impact.
They’ve developed a “planetary defense system” to protect Earth from global annihilation. The doomsday prevention network provides usable data that is required to detect incoming asteroids, determine their trajectory, and eventually deflect them so that Earth won’t be destroyed.
On October 12, a rouge asteroid will pass very close to the planet. Scientists intend to test their defense system using 2012 TC4, which will pass approximately 4,200 miles from the planet.
In the solar system, the asteroid belt is located between Mars and Jupiter. Scientist believe that during the formation of the planets, Jupiter’s gravity pulled the materials in the belt and prevented them from attaching to other planets. The resulting debris makes up what early 19th century stargazers eventually dubbed “asteroids,” after discovering that the missing planet they were looking for was essentially a number of small objects.
The belt includes the dwarf planet Ceres, which is 590 miles in diameter. This oddly round object makes up about one-third of the entire belt’s mass. About 75 percent of all asteroids are made from carbon, but silicaceous and metallic compositions make up the other major groups.
The 30-meter, 2012 TC4 asteroid provides the best way to test the fledgling defense system. NASA will use its international network of observatories to track, characterize, and observe the movement of the orbiting body.
Astronomers and scientists have always been excited about an asteroid passing this close to Earth. However, this event will deliver key information needed to predict asteroid trajectories. Because most of the rouge objects aren’t spherical, it’s hard to plan their flight path, or even see them coming.
Professor Vishnu Reddy, who is leading the campaign, said: ‘This is a team effort that involves more than a dozen observatories, universities and labs across the globe so we can collectively learn the strengths and limitations of our near-Earth object observation capabilities.”
He added, “This effort will exercise the entire system, to include the initial and follow-up observations, precise orbit determination, and international communications.”
2012 TC4 was first discovered in 2012. When it sped past Earth, its close path was a wake-up call for scientists to develop a workable detection and prevention system. Since then, the asteroid has been too far away to accurately track or study.
NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies in Pasadena, California predicts that the asteroid will be as close as 4,200 miles from Earth, but their calculations also show that it could pass 170,000 miles away. That’s what scientists need to determine. They need to understand where the asteroid will actually pass, and how its pattern can be used to deflect others, if required.
The observations are expected to provide measurements on the asteroid’s exact orbit. Paul Chodas, a manager working on the project told reporters that 2012 TC4 is a perfect target. He explained that observers know that the object won’t impact Earth, but he said “we haven’t established its exact path just yet.”
The goal of asteroid experts is to accurately track all possible “objects like comets or asteroids that have orbits that cross the Earth’s orbit such that we might be concerned in the future they could hit us by us and them being at the same place at the same time,” said Eileen Ryan with NASA’s Space Guard Program.
Finding Earth-colliding objects has been a concentrated effort ever since Russia was hit by a very small iron-based meteorite that injured over 1,000 people in 2013. The incident proved the need for a comprehensive planetary defense system that watches the sky for possible threats.
The damage that can be done by even small missiles is serious. A large impact would destroy all life. Scientists at NASA hope to prevent such an occurrence, and now that President Trump is in command, they’ll have the resources they need.
Possible deflection technologies include laser ablation, the NEOSheild Project, and a kinetic impactor. The last two rely on explosive methods to prevent impact, but the technology depends on being able to find any objects that might collide with Earth.
The push for an actionable defense system is gaining momentum. In October, scientists are hoping to garner the information they need to confirm the first phases of the project are successful.