Apparently, floating out in the vastness of space, there’s an asteroid so big it would unleash 80,000 times more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb if it hit Earth. And there’s a one in 2,700 chance of that.
Now, those odds don’t sound great. There’s less chance of you winning the lottery, and people seem to do that every day.
NASA scientists seem pretty chilled about it though, and say the chances of this ‘apocalypse asteroid’ – officially known as Bennu – hitting the Earth are very slim, and probably wouldn’t wipe out humanity if it did. So no need to get in the bunker just yet.
Bennu is 500 foot tall – taller than the Empire State building – and weighs 87 million tonnes, which is 1,664 times heavier than the Titanic, if you were wondering.
NASA currently have a space probe – OSIRIS-REx – which is orbiting the asteroid as we speak, and plans to land on Bennu in 2020. Scientists believe asteroids colliding with Earth billions of years ago may have transferred vital chemicals and minerals to the Earth’s surface, helping life to form. Collecting samples from Bennu’s surface, therefore, may help prove this theory.
After arriving at Bennu Dec. 3, I conducted a Preliminary Survey of the #asteroid, including flybys of its poles and equator. My NavCam1 imager captured the view as I flew back and forth, gathering data that helped my team plan orbit insertion on Dec. 31: https://t.co/sRsyMEMxBb pic.twitter.com/KlFxOpA0zC
— NASA's OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) January 2, 2019
In the meantime, the plucky little probe has sent back some images of this humongous threat to humanity, so we can get to know Bennu before it blasts us into oblivion.
Check it out:
As NASA explain, on the above image, the Earth and Moon can be seen in the lower left section of the frame, with Bennu much closer and brighter in the top right. Also visible is the head of the Hydra constellation in the lower right side of the image.
This picture was taken around 71 million miles (114 million kilometres) from Earth, while Bennu was only about 27 miles (43 kilometres) from the OSIRIS-REx.
OSIRIS-REx is getting closer and closer to Bennu, and took this picture just 15 miles from its surface:
Kirsten Howley, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said, via MailOnline:
The probability of a Bennu impact may be 1 in 2,700 today, but that will almost certainly change – for better or worse – as we gather more data about its orbit.
The space probe only reached Bennu towards the end of last year. Already, however, researchers have discovered molecules that contain oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together (known as ‘hydroxyls’). Scientists believes these molecules exist on Bennu in ‘water-bearing clay minerals’, meaning that – at some point in its history – the asteroid interacted with water, probably on its ‘parent body’, as Bennu is too small to host its own water.
It's official! I'm in orbit around #asteroid Bennu — now the smallest body ever orbited by a spacecraft. My snug path around the asteroid also sets a new record for the closest orbit of a planetary body by any spacecraft. #HappyNewYear, indeed! More ➡️ https://t.co/fwL3FEVU9m pic.twitter.com/ceavR7ju6i
— NASA's OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) December 31, 2018
In a NASA press release, instrument scientist Amy Simon said:
The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics.
When samples of this material are returned by the mission to Earth in 2023, scientists will receive a treasure trove of new information about the history and evolution of our solar system.
So, while it may hit Earth and wipe out humanity one day, at least we’ll know more about the apocalypse asteroid before it does.
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Charlie Cocksedge is a journalist at UNILAD. He graduated from the University of Manchester with an MA in Creative Writing, where he learnt how to write in the third person, before getting his NCTJ. His work has also appeared in such places as The Guardian, PN Review and the bin.