NASA astronomers predict 2029 close encounter of near-Earth asteroid

About five and a half years from now, astronomers estimate, an asteroid as tall as the Empire State Building will pass through space within 20,000 miles (32,200 kilometers) of Earth, the closest any celestial object of that size will come. Come to our planet in modern history.

When that happens, a spacecraft launched by NASA in 2016 is expected to be in a position to provide detailed investigation of this rare close encounter.

The mission, directed by University of Arizona scientists, is expected to yield insights about planetary formation and knowledge that could inform efforts to create a defense system against a potential doomsday asteroid collision with Earth.

At the time of its 2004 discovery, asteroid Apophis, named after a demon serpent symbolizing evil and chaos in ancient Egyptian mythology, appeared to pose a serious impact threat to Earth, with scientists predicting a possible collision in 2029. Had predicted. Refined observations have since ruled out the risk of any impact for at least another century.

Nevertheless, its next approach in 2029 will bring the asteroid to the same distance as Earth’s cosmic feline – less than a tenth of the Moon’s distance from us and even within the orbits of some geosynchronous Earth satellites.

The spacecraft now headed for a rendezvous with Apophis is OSIRIS-REx, which made headlines three years ago for taking a soil sample from a different asteroid and sending it back to Earth in a capsule that touched down in Utah in September. Made a parachute landing in.

Space Shuttle’s Second Function

Rather than retire the spacecraft, NASA has rebranded it as OSIRIS-Apex – short for Apophis Explorer – and fired its thrusters to keep it on course for its next target.

Details of the Apophis mission were described in a mission overview published in the journal Planetary Science.

Apophis, oblong and somewhat peanut-shaped, is a stony asteroid that is believed to consist mostly of silicate material along with iron and nickel. Measuring about 1,110 feet (340 meters) across, it is scheduled to pass within about 19,800 miles (31,860 kilometers) of Earth’s surface on April 13, 2029, making it visible to the naked eye for a few hours, said deputy principal investigator Michael Nolan said. For Mission at the University of Arizona.

Nolan said, “It won’t be so much a spectacular show as a single point of sunlight reflected in the night sky over Africa and Europe.”

It is estimated that a large asteroid passing this close to Earth occurs approximately once every 7,500 years. The Apophis flyby is the first such encounter that was predicted in advance.

The tidal pull of Earth’s gravity is likely to cause measurable perturbations to the asteroid’s surface and motion, altering its orbital path and rotational spin. Tidal forces can trigger landslides on Apophis and dislodge rocks and dust particles to form a comet-like tail.

The spacecraft is set to observe the asteroid as it approaches Earth and eventually captures Apophis. These images and data will be combined with ground-based telescope measurements to explore and quantify how Apophis changed as it passed Earth.

Osiris-Apex is scheduled to stay near Apophis for 18 months – orbiting it, moving around it and even hovering over its surface, using rocket thrusters to scoop up loose material and reveal what’s beneath.

Planetary Science and Defense

Like other asteroids, Apophis is a relic of the early Solar System. Its mineralogy and chemistry are largely unchanged over more than 4.5 billion years, providing clues to the origin and evolution of rocky planets like Earth.

Close examination of Apophis could provide planetary defense experts with valuable information about the asteroid’s composition and other properties. The more scientists know about the composition, density, and orbital behavior of such celestial “rubble heaps”, the greater the chances of devising effective asteroid-deflection strategies to reduce impact hazards.

NASA intentionally crashed a spacecraft into a small asteroid in a planetary-defense test last year, knocking the rocky object off its normal path, the first time mankind had observed the natural motion of a celestial body. Was changed.

Apophis is much larger than that asteroid, but smaller than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs when it hit Earth 66 million years ago.

Nolan said that although it is not large enough to pose a threat to life on Earth, an Apophis-sized asteroid hitting the planet at hypersonic speed could still devastate a major city or region, as well as parts of the ocean. The impact may also cause a tsunami.

“It wouldn’t be catastrophic on a global scale in terms of mass extinction,” Nolan said, but the impact would “definitely be in the bad category.”

“If this thing hits it’s coming at several miles per second. And at that speed, whether it’s made of gravel or ice or rocks or whatever, it doesn’t come down. It’s just a big, heavy thing.” is growing rapidly,” Nolan added.

© Thomson Reuters 2023

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