A Massive Asteroid Visible To The Naked Eye Is Heading Our Way And NASA Is Re-Routing An Old Spacecraft To Visit It

Remember NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft that visited the distant Bennu asteroid and scraped-up a sample in October 2020. It’s going to deliver that sample to NASA September 24, 2023 as it swings by Earth—and then it’s off on a new mission of explore a near-Earth asteroid that could one day be a “planet-killer.”

The Apophis asteroid is enormous and classed as “potentially hazardous” by NASA. Thought to be about 1,100 feet/340 meters in diameter (that’s about the same height as the Empire State Building in Manhattan in New York), Apophis will get to within just 23,000 miles/37,000 on April 13, 2029.

During that close pass it will even be visible to the naked eye as seen from some parts of Earth.

MORE FROM FORBESExactly 7 Years From Today A Massive Asteroid Will Get Closer To Earth Than Some Of Our Satellites. Should NASA Visit It?

The newly-named OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer (OSIRIS-APEX) will already be in orbit of it by then. NASA announced this week that the spacecraft, having dropped off its package in 2023, will make its first maneuver toward Apophis 30 days later.

Although it will pass Earth inside the orbits of our geosynchronous satellites in 2029, Apophis won’t pose a danger this time around.

So why visit it?

Scientists suspect that the effect on it of the close pass in 2029 could be a slight alteration to its future trajectory. We know Apophis will make very close passes in 2060 and 2068. Might the 2029 event put Apophis on an “Earth-resonant impact trajectory ?”

Probably not, but NASA wants to know as much about Apophis as far in advance as possible just in case.

What scientists learn from sending OSIRIS-APEX to study Apophis in 2029 could even prove to be useful hundreds of years from now when the massive asteroid does pose a threat.

OSIRIS-APEX will study near-Earth asteroid Apophis for 18 months in a mission extension that will cost $200 million.

“Apophis is one of the most infamous asteroids,” said Dani DellaGiustina, a planetary sciences assistant professor at the University of Arizona, who will become principal investigator of OSIRIS-APEX. “When it was first discovered in 2004, there was concern that it would impact the Earth in 2029 during its close approach. “

Subsequent observations proved that not to be the case, but the 2029 pass will be the closest an asteroid of that size has gotten to Earth in the 50 or so years asteroids have been closely tracked.

“It gets within one-tenth the distance between the Earth and moon during the 2029 encounter,” said DellaGiustina. “People in Europe and Africa will be able to see it with the naked eye, that’s how close it will get. We were stoked to find out the mission was extended.”

While orbiting Apophis for 18 months as it gets close to Earth it will approach its surface and fire its thrusters, as it did at Bennu, to expose the asteroid’s sub-surface. That will allow scientists to learn more about what the asteroid is made of. That will help them study how the asteroid will be physically affected by the gravitational pull of Earth as it makes its close approach in 2029.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.


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