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    “God of Darkness” asteroid Apophis will visit Earth in rare flyby • Earth.com

    In a bold extension of its mission, the spacecraft formerly known as OSIRIS-REx embarks on an unprecedented journey to explore asteroid Apophis.

    This celestial body is set to make a historic flyby of Earth in 2029, an event unseen since the advent of recorded history.

    The spacecraft, now renamed OSIRIS-APEX (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Apophis Explorer), leverages its successful past to venture into new cosmic territories.

    The journey of OSIRIS-REx is nothing short of extraordinary. After a seven-year, 4 billion-mile expedition, it returned to Earth with a sample from asteroid Bennu.

    This feat in September marked a pinnacle in space exploration. With its instruments still in excellent condition and a quarter of its fuel remaining, the decision to repurpose the spacecraft for a new mission was a natural progression.

    Decision to explore asteroid Apophis

    Apophis, an “S-type” asteroid composed of silicate materials and nickel-iron, starkly contrasts with the carbon-rich, “C-type” Bennu.

    After considering several potential destinations, including Venus and various comets, NASA’s choice of Apophis was driven by its intriguingly close approach to Earth.

    On April 13, 2029, Apophis will pass within 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) of Earth’s surface, closer than some satellites and potentially visible to the naked eye in the Eastern Hemisphere.

    Asteroids of Apophis’ size, roughly 367 yards (340 meters) across, only come this close to Earth approximately once every 7,500 years. This rarity presents an invaluable opportunity for scientific exploration and understanding.

    Asteroid Apophis Mission’s objectives

    As explained by Amy Simon, the mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, OSIRIS-APEX aims to study Apophis immediately after its close pass with Earth.

    “OSIRIS-APEX will study Apophis immediately after such a pass, allowing us to see how its surface changes by interacting with Earth’s gravity,” said Simon.

    This will allow scientists to observe any surface changes caused by Earth’s gravitational interaction with the asteroid.

    Furthermore, Dani Mendoza DellaGiustina, principal investigator for OSIRIS-APEX at the University of Arizona in Tucson, highlights the significance of this close approach as a natural experiment.

    “The close approach is a great natural experiment,” said DellaGiustina. “We know that tidal forces and the accumulation of rubble pile material are foundational processes that could play a role in planet formation. They could inform how we got from debris in the early solar system to full-blown planets.”

    This event could provide insights into tidal forces and rubble pile accumulation, fundamental processes that may have played a role in planet formation.

    Asteroid Apophis mission timeline

    Apophis serves as a key subject in understanding potentially hazardous asteroids, most of which are S-types like itself.

    The insights gained from this mission will be crucial for planetary defense research, a top priority for NASA. By April 2, 2029, OSIRIS-APEX will begin imaging Apophis as it catches up to the asteroid.

    Earth-based telescopes will also observe Apophis, but following the close encounter, the asteroid will be too near the Sun for ground-based optical telescopes to observe.

    This positions OSIRIS-APEX in a unique spot to detect any changes resulting from the encounter.

    Studying Apophis up close

    Upon arrival on April 13, 2029, OSIRIS-APEX will operate near the asteroid for approximately 18 months. Its mission includes mapping the surface, analyzing its chemical makeup, and conducting a daring maneuver: dipping within 16 feet of Apophis’ surface to stir up rocks and dust, thus revealing the material beneath.

    With the rendezvous more than five years away, OSIRIS-APEX’s journey includes six close Sun passes and three gravity assists from Earth, setting it on course for Apophis.

    What discoveries lie ahead are yet to be seen, but as Amy Simon poignantly puts it, the mission’s previous achievements at Bennu have only deepened the scientific community’s curiosity and questions for Apophis.

    In summary, OSIRIS-APEX’s mission to Apophis is a continuation of its predecessor’s legacy, and also a stride into a realm of new possibilities and discoveries. It offers a glimpse into the formative processes of our solar system and enhancing our understanding of asteroid dynamics and planetary defense.

    More about OSIRIS-REx

    As mentioned above, the OSIRIS-REx mission, an ambitious endeavor by NASA, marked a significant milestone in space exploration and the study of asteroids.

    Launched on September 8, 2016, this mission aimed to reach the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, a carbon-rich body that scientists believe holds clues to the early solar system and the origins of life.

    Mission overview and objectives

    OSIRIS-REx, an acronym for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, embarked on a journey spanning millions of miles. Its primary objective was to collect and return samples from Bennu’s surface.

    This task held immense scientific importance as asteroids like Bennu are remnants from the solar system’s formation, potentially containing organic compounds and water.

    Journey to asteroid Bennu

    After a two-year journey, OSIRIS-REx reached Bennu in December 2018. The spacecraft then spent two years in close proximity to the asteroid, mapping its surface in unprecedented detail and selecting the most suitable site for sample collection.

    This phase involved intricate maneuvers and precise navigation around the asteroid’s small gravitational field.

    Historic sample collection

    In October 2020, OSIRIS-REx made history by successfully touching down on Bennu’s surface and collecting samples.

    The “Touch-And-Go” (TAG) sample acquisition mechanism allowed the spacecraft to briefly contact the asteroid and use a burst of nitrogen gas to stir up regolith (surface material), which was then captured in the sampler head.

    Return and landing on Earth

    With its precious cargo, OSIRIS-REx began its journey back to Earth in May 2021. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx team then achieved a monumental milestone in space exploration, successfully returning a capsule containing rocks and dust from asteroid Bennu to Earth.

    The capsule marked its entry on Earth at 8:52 a.m. MDT on Sunday, landing meticulously in a predetermined area of the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range, near Salt Lake City.

    This event marked the first time NASA has retrieved samples from an asteroid, providing invaluable material for research that could revolutionize our understanding of the solar system and life’s beginnings.

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