Last year, the OSIRIS-REX spacecraft thwacked the surface of an asteroid named Bennu in order to collect samples, and the probe is now on its journey back to the surface of the planet Earth. It will return to Earth in 2023, ejecting a capsule with materials that might aid enthusiastic scientists in their quest to understand the origins of Earth’s water and life.
However, there will be plenty of fuel remaining in the spaceship. Its mission crew pondered if it may be able to travel someplace else.
As it turns out, this is correct. Not just anywhere, but on Apophis, one of the most well-known near-Earth asteroids in history.
Michael Nolan of the University of Arizona, the mission’s scientific team leader, said, “We were really happy when we found out we were going to be able to get there.” Nolan’s results were presented at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which took place this week in New Orleans.
Apophis was formerly considered to be the most dangerous asteroid in the solar system, posing the biggest threat to Earth. Following its detection in 2004, scientists estimated that it had a one-in-37 probability of colliding with our planet in 2029, making it the most likely asteroid to strike our planet in recorded history. If it were to strike our planet, it would not terminate life as we know it, but it would devastate an area hundreds of miles large.
An updated research subsequently revealed that the asteroid, which is now circling the Earth’s orbit, would have no effect on our planet. The spacecraft is expected to approach within 20,000 miles of the Earth in April 2029, passing within the orbits of several geostationary satellites and near enough to be seen with the naked eye in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
If mission commanders on Earth commanded OSIRIS-REX to complete three flybys of the planet after dropping off its samples, by chance, the spacecraft would be able to reach Apophis, according to calculations. When the asteroid passes across our sky, the OSIRIS-REX spacecraft would be barely an hour behind it, ready to snuggle up to the asteroid in June 2029, according to NASA.
While Apophis does not pose a danger to the Earth — at least for the next century or two — research into it might reveal a great lot about asteroids of this magnitude in the long run. Other missions to Apophis are not currently planned for the year 2029, however there are ideas to do so in the future.
The OSIRIS-REX team will submit their application to NASA for an extension of the mission next month, with a decision anticipated by the end of the month. If the mission is approved, the spacecraft will spend the next 18 months investigating Apophis once it has arrived.
When OSIRIS-REX was circling Apophis, it would swoop down to the planet’s surface and acquire high-resolution photographs of the surface. The search would entail checking for signs of landslides created by the gravitational push of the Earth as the asteroid sped by.
Also planned is for the spaceship to make an attempt to drop to the surface and use its rockets to blow a hole through the planet’s surface. The objective would be to reveal subsurface material, which would aid in the discovery of the asteroid’s composition.
It is possible that this information will be used to guide a future expedition to rescue the Earth from Apophis or another asteroid. Scientists will be able to determine the asteroid’s mass, density, and structure, which will allow them to determine how spongy or hard it is, and therefore how to best deal with similar asteroids.
A similar experiment is being carried out by NASA’s continuing DART mission, which was launched last month and is colliding with a minor asteroid in order to determine whether or not we can shift its orbit.
According to Davide Farnocchia, a scientist at NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the near flyby of Apophis provided a “wonderful chance” to view an asteroid of this magnitude up up and personal. A greater knowledge of Apophis’s potential danger to the Earth would also result from this investigation.
After visiting Apophis, it’s possible that OSIRIS-REX may have enough fuel to go to yet another asteroid. In another scenario, it may be put on the surface of Apophis and serve as a “tracking beacon,” according to Dr. Nolan.
Whether the extended mission is permitted might be determined by budget limits or other factors, such as worries that OSIRIS-REX could accidently modify the orbit of Apophis and pose a danger to the Earth. However, it has the potential to be an exciting new chapter in the mission’s history.