The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is designing a space probe to intercept a 40-million-ton asteroid that will pass extremely close to Earth twelve years from now.
MIT announced Wednesday that professors and students are designing a space probe mission to observe the asteroid “99942 Apophis” as it passes Earth in 2029. Due to the way orbital mechanics work, MIT or NASA would have to launch the probe before August of 2026.
“Asteroid Apophis is like ‘the poster child’ for understanding how we might someday deal with an actual asteroid threat,” Dr. Richard P Binzel, a planetary science professor at MIT who’s involved in the research, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Its 2029 close approach, passing within Earth’s geosynchronous satellite ring, is an extremely rare learning opportunity.”
The Apophis asteroid will pass within 18,600 miles of Earth’s surface on April 13, 2029, which is ridiculously close by space distance standards.
The MIT probe could teach scientists more about the construction of asteroids, providing valuable information about the formation of our solar system. What scientists learn from the Apophis encounter could make it easier to mount a planetary defense in the event an asteroid was ever found to be on an impact course.
“Apophis is the size of an aircraft carrier (1200 feet long) with a mass of 40 million tons,” Binzel said. “An object this large passes this close to Earth only about once per thousand years. So the idea of the mission study is to see how to seize the opportunity to study Apophis inside and out.”
In December 2004, initial observations of Apophis indicated it had a 2.7 percent chance of striking Earth in 2029 or exactly seven years later. This has since been revised considerably, with the probability of an eventual impact now at roughly 1 in 149,000. If Apophis were to directly land on an urban area, it could annihilate a city. The blast would equal 880 million tons of TNT or 65,000 times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
If Apophis did strike Earth, it could create a crater about 1.25 miles across and almost 1,700 feet deep. On average, an asteroid the size of Apophis can be expected to impact Earth about every 80,000 years.
“Apophis comes so close that the Earth will cause tidal stress inside the asteroid, possibly shaking it or even reshaping it,” Binzel said. “How Apophis responds will tell us how it is constructed, something we will need to know for any asteroid that might ever pose a real threat.”
Smaller asteroids than Apophis are much harder to detect and there’s little that could be done to stop a small space rock on course for Earth without early warning. Typically, these rocks are discovered just days or hours before they pass by Earth.
There’s not a shortage of space rocks that put our planet at risk either. Global asteroid detection programs found more than 16,269 near-Earth objects of all sizes — 770 new near-Earth objects were identified so far this year alone, according to International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planets Center.
NASA scientists previously told TheDCNF that the best way to stop an asteroid or comet from hitting the Earth on such short notice may be to send a spacecraft up to intercept it. However, NASA would need at least five years to construct a reliable spacecraft for the job and such an object would probably only be detected two years in advance.
NASA studies suggest building several interceptor vehicles and keeping them on standby in the event of an impending collision. Such vehicles would sit in storage until needed to redirect an incoming asteroid or comet, eliminating the need to rush to meet a deadline.
In a recent war game, NASA and other federal agencies were unable to deflect a simulated asteroid on course to hit Earth with four years of warning.
The “city-killer” asteroid landed off the Southern California coast. Federal Energy Management Agency personnel were forced to coordinate a simulated mass evacuation of the Los Angeles area to mitigate the damages of a potential tsunami.
In the event an asteroid does hit Earth, NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office would work with FEMA, the Department of Defense and other agencies to coordinate disaster responses.
Congress approved $50 million for near-earth object observations and planetary defense in 2016, up from just $4 million in 2010.
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