NASA scientists are preparing to monitor an asteroid that will pass nearby Earth in October. The asteroid, named 2012 TC4, will fly past Earth at a distance of about 4,200 miles (6,800 kilometers) at its absolute closest.

The asteroid, estimated to be between 30 and 100 feet (10 and 30 meters) in size, will approach our planet on October 12. NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office is already preparing for the occasion and expects to observe the passing of 2012 TC4 through the agency’s InfraRed Telescope Facility in Hawaii.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s rendition of a similarly-sized asteroid. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

2012 TC4 has been out of range of telescopes since 2012, and scientists around the world plan to use this opportunity to learn as much as possible about asteroids.

NASA scientists prepare to see an asteroid flyby Earth in October

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office will closely follow the asteroid, as they intend to prepare for a future event in which an asteroid may come close to our planet. That office is responsible for finding, tracking, and characterizing potentially dangerous comets and asteroids coming near Earth.

“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.”

In a statement from NASA, Kelley explained the Planetary Defense Coordination Office plans to “add in another layer of effort,” by using this asteroid flyby to test the asteroid detection and tracking network in the world The office will assess their capability to work together in response to finding “a potential real asteroid threat.”

2012 TC4's trajectory. Image Credit: NASA
2012 TC4’s trajectory. Image Credit: NASA

Professor Vishnu Reddy from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson is leading the campaign to reacquire 2012 TC4. He shared his excitement for the event, in which more than a dozen observatories, laboratories, and universities around the world will track down the small asteroid.

He noted that the object of the TC4 campaign is to recover, track and characterize the asteroid.

“This effort will exercise the entire system, to include the initial and follow-up observations, precise orbit determination, and international communications,” said Reddy, according to NASA’s statement.

Asteroid 2012 TC4 could fly past Earth at a distance of 170,000 miles

Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena estimate that while at its closest possible approach the asteroid will pass no closer than 4,200 miles from our planet, it is more likely that it will pass much farther away, as far as 170,000 miles (270,000 kilometers).

Asteroid 2012 TC4 is probably slightly larger than the asteroid that hit Earth’s atmosphere near Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February 2013, according to NASA. The asteroid has not been spotted since its discovery in 2012 when it swung past Earth at about one-fourth the distance from our planet to the moon.

The asteroid will be observed this summer as it begins approaching our planet. Large telescopes will be used to detect its trajectory. Paul Chodas, the manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at the Jet Propulsion Lab, noted that it’s the perfect moment to analyze 2012 TC4’s trajectory because while they know it won’t impact Earth, they haven’t established its exact path yet.

Photo of the Chelyabinsk event. Image Credit: Aleksandr Ivanov
Photo of the Chelyabinsk event. Image Credit: Aleksandr Ivanov

In October, when the asteroid does fly by Earth, astronomers will see it from NASA’s InfraRed Telescope Facility. The scientists will follow the procedures they’d follow if this were a real threat.

“[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,” Kelley told Gizmodo. “So we’re pretty much following the procedure of what we’d do in a real-world scenario.”

NASA is looking for a Planetary Protection Officer

NASA recently started looking for a Planetary Protection Officer. The job opening was announced through USAJOBS. The space agency is offering a six figure salary (between $124,406 and $187,000 a year) for the lucky person who gets the job.

A planetary protection officer’s task is to defend Earth from alien contamination, as well as preventing humans from contaminating alien worlds. In a job description, NASA explained the agency maintains policies for planetary protection applicable to all spaceflight missions that may carry Earth organisms to other planets or solar system bodies, or vice versa.

Such a job requires some essential qualifications, as some of the requirements to apply include one year of experience as a top-level civilian government agent, having advanced knowledge of planetary protection, and having an advanced degree in physical science, engineering or mathematics.

Anyone interested in applying for the job can do so until August 14.

Source: NASA