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May 23, 2024

NASA Sets Sights on Asteroid Apocalypse

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Jan 1, 2024

Introduction

NASA has launched a daring new mission to get up close and personal with an asteroid named Apophis that some scientists have dubbed the “God of Chaos.” This peanut-shaped space rock, roughly 1,100 feet (340 meters) across, will make an extremely close approach to Earth in 2029, coming within 20,000 miles of our planet’s surface – closer than some satellites orbiting Earth.

While Apophis poses no danger to Earth during that 2029 flyby, its size and proximity have led NASA to designate it as potentially hazardous. By studying Apophis now with the Osiris-REx spacecraft, recently renamed “Osiris-Apex,” scientists hope to gain insight that could help plan a response if there is a threat of an asteroid impact sometime in the future.

“Apophis is one of the most infamous asteroids,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “By observing Apophis during its 2029 flyby, we’ll gain important scientific knowledge that could one day be critical in helping to determine whether we’re going to deflect an asteroid that’s an actual threat.”

Lead Up to Osiris-Apex Mission

The Osiris-Apex mission builds on the success of NASA’s first round-trip mission to return samples from an asteroid. The spacecraft originally known as Osiris-Rex completed a two-year sojourn at asteroid Bennu in 2021, vacuuming up some 2.1 ounces (60 grams) of loose rock and dust to bring home for analysis.

Just days after dropping off its sample capsule for a parachute landing in the Utah desert on September 24, 2022, NASA approved a two-and-a-half-year extended mission, reusing the durable spacecraft already millions of miles from Earth instead of letting it remain idle.

Overview of Osiris-Rex Mission

The goal of the original Osiris-Rex mission was to collect a sample from Bennu and return it to Earth for advanced scientific analysis. Bennu offered scientists an astronomical bounty of information because it is so primitive and pristine – essentially a time capsule from the early solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago.

By studying its composition, scientists hope to gain insight into the dawn of our solar system, the origins of life on Earth, the hazards posed by asteroids, and perhaps even the future mining of asteroids for precious materials.

Osiris-Rex Mission Details
Spacecraft NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (Osiris-Rex)
Mission Goal Collect a sample from asteroid Bennu and return it to Earth for analysis
Launch Date September 8, 2016
Arrival at Bennu December 3, 2018
Sample Collection October 20, 2020
Departure from Bennu May 10, 2021
Sample Return to Earth September 24, 2022

Now with the sample capsule successfully delivered, NASA has sent the still-healthy spacecraft on a new mission to investigate Apophis.

Studying the God of Chaos

Apophis was discovered in 2004 and initially there was concern that it could strike Earth when it zoomed uncomfortably close in 2029. Further measurements ruled out any chance of a collision then, but on April 13 of that year, it will pass within 20,000 miles of Earth’s surface over the Eastern Pacific Ocean – 10 times closer than the moon.

Apophis will make another close approach in 2036 but then won’t come nearly as close again for about another 100 years.

By studying Apophis now during its 2029 approach, “the Osiris-Apex investigation will help us prepare for future hazards that may lurk in our celestial neighborhood,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate NASA administrator for science.

Measurements from ground-based telescopes will not match those that can be collected in Apophis’ immediate vicinity. By sampling the asteroid’s composition from up close, Osiris-Apex will be able to far more accurately determine its interior structure and the direction it spins – key information for one day mounting a potential deflection attempt, if it ever poses an actual threat.

Outlook After the 2029 Flyby

“We’re going to have radar images with resolutions potentially down to 2 to 5 feet (60 cm to 1.5 meters) per pixel,” Marina Brozović, a radar scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.

That should reveal boulders littering the surface. The close encounter will even exert tidal gravitational forces strong enough to crack open areas on Apophis, offering glimpses of material beneath.

Brozović said the images will build on those captured by Osiris-Apex as it gets closer and closer.

By the late 2020s, she expects to have detailed scans of nearly 95% of the surface at resolutions down to 33 feet (10 meters) per pixel. That’s far better imagery than what NASA’s Deep Space Network of ground antennas will produce in 2029 – roughly 330 feet (100 meters) per pixel.

Apophis will then remain lodged firmly in astronomers’ crosshairs.

“There’s a lot of science to be done in understanding the nature of this object,” said Allen Buie, director of solar system observations at the Planetary Science Institute. “How is it shaped? How is it spinning? Does it tumble? Those are all questions we’ll finally get answered.”

Those answers will prove critical in planning for a potential future asteroid impact, determining everything from the best place to attempt a deflection to the natural entry point for a spacecraft to arrive or depart.

Final Thoughts

NASA’s study of Apophis comes at an opportune time, while the world has asteroid strikes on its collective mind following the massive airburst explosion over the Bering Sea last month. No one saw the 66-foot space rock coming ahead of time. It exploded with 2.5 times the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

That dramatic event helped drive home how blind the world remains to the multitude of space rocks out there. NASA estimates fewer than half of the 25,000 near-Earth objects 140 meters or larger in size have been identified to date.

Apophis stands out as one of the largest and best-studied asteroids making a very close approach in modern times. By intercepting the God of Chaos, Osiris-Apex ensures scientists a prime opportunity to uncover hazards that may lurk amid the cosmos. The knowledge gained could prove instrumental in defending Earth from future threats.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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