Space is genuinely a terrifying thing. The vast, fathomless blackness hanging over our heads is like a projector screen for our hopes and fears. Some of us gaze up at the stars and imagine we see God, others regard the distant candlelit constellations of the Milky Way. Some of us even imagine other life lurking somewhere out there in the universe.
However, there are those of us whose jobs are to regard the stars, watching the movements of planets and meteorites for our scientific benefit. Sometimes they bring good news – satellite images of colorful nebulae and frozen moons, or evidence of water buried deep under the surface of planets.
But this time NASA have got some bad news for us, and bad news from NASA really isn’t the kind you can ignore. It’s not like a gas bill or funny pain in your side. NASA bad news is a bit more pressing than that.
“Bennu” is an Apollo asteroid discovered by the LINEAR Project on September 11, 1999. It’s a large hunk of shattered rock hurtling through space with a mean diameter of approximately 492 m and has been observed extensively by the Arecibo Observatory. The problem is, by the time this asteroid catches up with our planet in 2135, it is predicted to pass between the Earth and the Moon’s orbit, which will cause untold damage through interference with the Earth’s tides and magnetic poles.
And that’s just what will happen if it misses! If the asteroid actually managed to impact the surface of the Earth directly, the damage will be widespread, permanent and utterly destructive. Imagine around 100 nuclear bombs detonating at the same location simultaneously. Yikes! We’re not gonna sugarcoat it: that sounds pretty final, end-of-the-world type stuff. (The kind of annihilation that makes Independence Day look like a documentary on potholes.)
Interestingly enough, the asteroid that could potentially kill us all was named by a third-grader! Michael Puzio won a national competition to name the asteroid, and called it Bennu after an Egyptian God. But fear not; the boffins at Cape Canaveral are already working on a project to save our bacon.
The OSIRIS-REX Mission, headed by NASA and the University of Arizona, plan to launch an unmanned spacecraft on September 8 of this year in an effort to reach Bennu in August 2018 as part of a study into how the absorption and radiation of sunlight and starlight can affect its velocity and trajectory.
NASA investigator and professor of planetary science, Dante Lauretta, is leading the mission to collect soil samples from the asteroid which he said could provide “vital data for future generations”, and potentially avert calamity if the meteor is indeed on a collision course with Earth. Dust and debris gathered from the asteroid could contain organic material almost as old as our galaxy, and offer valuable insight into the development of life on other worlds.
Lauretta said that by the time the asteroid is predicted to strike, we’ll likely have the technology to destroy Bennu, although we don’t have that capacity right now. He mentioned nuclear missiles as a potential means to protect Earth from Bennu, as well as what he described as a “gravity tractor” – a spacecraft or satellite that would disrupt Bennu’s gravitational pull and send it careening off course from Earth. So that’s a relief. For reference, here’s a video showing the launch of a rocket from Cape Canaveral.