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NASA is extremely interested in building a true astroid defense network that could spring into action as soon as a threat is detected, destroying or diverting a space rock before it can do any serious damage here on Earth. The actual development of a protection system is still in its infancy — with many proposed plans for dealing with troublesome astroids but no real-world testing to back any of them — but that won't stop NASA from testing its detection capabilities during an upcoming near-earth astroid flyby in October. Here's how it's going to work.
The astroid named 2012 TC4 is going to make its closest approach to Earth on October 12th, coming incredibly close to our planet. At its nearest point, the rock is expected to be as close as 4,200 miles from our planet. Compare that with our moon's orbit of around 240,000 miles and you have a good idea of how insanely close the space rock will be.
The close call makes 2012 TC4 a fantastic guinea pig for NASA's asteroid detection network, which will require the cooperation between many scientists and observatories acting in concert to establish the asteroid's exact path. At present, researchers know enough about the asteroid's path to be confident that it poses no threat to us, but figuring out exactly where it will pass will be a real test of the system.
"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," Professor Vishnu Reddy of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory said of the event. "The goal of the TC4 campaign is to recover, track and characterize 2012 TC4. "This effort will exercise the entire system, to include the initial and follow-up observations, precise orbit determination, and international communications."