NASA Reckons This Asteroid Has a Chance of Hitting Earth in the Next 300 Years

NASA Reckons This Asteroid Has a Chance of Hitting Earth in the Next 300 Years
Image: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

To top off a great week of COVID-19 and climate change-related doom, NASA has announced its predictions for when a hazardous asteroid may hit Earth.

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office continuously monitors objects in space that could become problems for Earth in the future. According to NASA, these Near-Earth Objects are defined as potentially hazardous if they come within 7.5 million kilometres of our planet’s orbit.

One such asteroid, named Bennu, has been on NASA’s radar for a while.

To further refine their data and predictions about Bennu’s trajectory and impact possibilities, NASA launched a mission to investigate the asteroid closer and return samples to Earth.

Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (or OSIRIS-REx) arrived at Bennu on December 3, 2018. Thanks to its findings, NASA scientists have been able to refine their data on Bennu and its impact potential.

So, will the asteroid hit us?

This week NASA released a new study with its findings on Bennu from the OSIRIS-REx mission.

Kelly Fast, program manager for the Near-Earth Object Observations Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said of the mission:

“NASA’s Planetary Defense mission is to find and monitor asteroids and comets that can come near Earth and may pose a hazard to our planet. We carry out this endeavour through continuing astronomical surveys that collect data to discover previously unknown objects and refine our orbital models for them. The OSIRIS-REx mission has provided an extraordinary opportunity to refine and test these models, helping us better predict where Bennu will be when it makes its close approach to Earth more than a century from now.”

OSIRIS-REx has spent more than two years in close proximity to Bennu and has gathered information on its size, shape, mass, composition and spin and orbital trajectory.

Using NASA’s Deep Space Network and advanced computer models, scientists have now been able to rule out some uncertainties in the asteroid’s orbit.

They determined that Bennu’s impact probability through the year 2300 is 1 in 1,750 or 0.057%. They also identified September 24, 2182, as the most significant date for a potential impact, with a probability of 1 in 2,700 (or 0.037%).

Put that date in your calendar, folks.

There are still a number of factors at play that could alter Bennu’s trajectory, such as the Sun’s heat, gravitational keyholes and the Yarkovsky effect.

With so many different forces at play, this highlights the significance of missions like OSIRIS-REx.

“We’ve never modelled an asteroid’s trajectory to this precision before,” said study lead Davide Farnocchia from the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies.

OSIRIS-REx is now on its way back to Earth with some rock and dust samples from Bennu. This will help scientists learn even more about the asteroid and the history of the solar system.

Knowing our luck here on Earth the asteroid probably will hit us, but at least NASA will be able to warn us thanks to studies like this one.