Having successfully transported soil samples of an asteroid to Earth, NASA plans to once again send a small spacecraft into space to conduct research. This time, the spacecraft will be smaller than its predecessor, and it will investigate one of the closest objects that will pass near Earth in the near future, and which has the potential for real damage.
The new research by the spacecraft, named OSIRIS-APEX, which previously studied the asteroid Bennu and was able to collect samples from it by sending a robotic arm on its surface, will focus on Apophis, a peanut-shaped asteroid named after the ancient Egyptian god of chaos, which in 2029 will get so close to Earth that satellites in space will be farther from our star than that asteroid.
Apophis is a 366-meter-long space rock that on April 13, 2029 is expected to reach a distance of "only" 32,187 kilometers from Earth, a tiny distance when it comes to the movement of bodies in space. In fact, the asteroid will pass us at a distance 10 times closer to us than the Moon is to us. This level of closeness meant that in 2004, when Apophis was discovered, there were fears that it would pose a real danger to the planet. The small distance requires studying Apophis both to better study the materials it is made of and to assess its danger in case there is a change in its trajectory.
Launching a spacecraft to try to prevent an asteroid collision with Earth, in 2021 // From NASA's YouTube channel
To better understand the importance of the study, Itay Nevo, a space correspondent for the Davidson Institute of Science Education website, explained to Israel Hayom in 2004 that there was a few percent chance that the asteroid would hit Earth in 2029, or when it passed close to Earth again, in 2036. "Since then, a great many measurements have been made, and today the overwhelming assessment is that there is no risk of impact, neither at these two passes nor at the ones that follow, in which it will pass much farther from Earth (millions of kilometers at all other crossings, compared to, as mentioned, only about 32,2029 kilometers in <>)," he said.
If the asteroid does hit Earth, it will release energy equivalent to a 510-megaton TNT nuclear explosion, which is no less than 34,250 nuclear bombs of the type dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Such an impact, of course, could wipe out entire countries – and if it hits the sea, it will trigger tsunami waves as high as <> meters.
Nevo tries to remain optimistic: "Can such an asteroid deflect its orbit and increase the risk of hitting us? Theoretically, this cannot be ruled out – it is possible that another object will hit it and slightly change its trajectory, that part of it will break or even that ice will be stored in it, and something will cause it to thaw quickly and be emitted as a gas jet, which will slightly change its trajectory. These are all purely theoretical possibilities, the chances of realizing which are very low, and we have no reason to think that something like this will happen. Moreover, even if the trajectory changes, statistically the asteroid is much more likely to move away from a direct trajectory of hitting us."
According to Nevo, the spacecraft will map the asteroid accurately, so that if it is necessary in the future to deflect it from its orbit, it will be possible to calculate the optimal point of impact to achieve the maximum effect. "The spacecraft will accurately measure other parameters of its orbit, such as the rotational speed around itself, which will allow us to further accurately calculate the trajectory for the coming years and assess the risk of impact," he said.
The OSIRIS-APEX spacecraft (illustration), photo: University of Arizona
The OSIRIS-APEX will take advantage of Earth's gravity to enter orbit and study it during the 18 months it orbits. As the spacecraft circles around the asteroid, it will use its engines to push out of pollen apophys and small rocks to study them.
The reason for the research effort stems from the fact that it is an asteroid made of stone, which intrigued the researchers to find out how hard its surface is and how much movement in space causes its weathering. "We know from observations made so far that Apophis is a rocky asteroid (unlike its son, from whom the sample was collected, which is a carbon asteroid) – that is, it contains silicon-based rocks and metals such as iron and nickel," he concluded. "However, we don't know if it's one lump of rock or a clump of gravel sticking together in space, or any other possibility. We also don't know its exact shape – it is believed to be in the shape of a peanut pod, meaning that two flattened balls are connected in a narrower part that reaches almost 370 meters in length."
Near Earth asteroid (illustration), photo: Getty Images
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