NASA spacecraft zooms to new asteroid after dropping capsule on Earth (Image Credit: Mashable)
The robot, which has been flying for seven years on the space agency’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample return mission, won’t get a break anytime soon. About 20 minutes after releasing the capsule containing bits of Bennu from 63,000 miles above Earth, the craft fired its thrusters to avoid following it into Earth’s atmosphere. That maneuver officially triggered the beginning of a new mission — OSIRIS-Apex — a journey to yet another asteroid that scientists once feared could hit Earth in the future.
If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft that dozens of scientists and engineers have affectionately called O-Rex, will reach Apophis, a stony near-Earth asteroid, in 2029.
That meant as some of the OSIRIS-Rex team, short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security Regolith Explorer, were popping champagne, others were laser-focused on getting the scrappy spacecraft to its next destination, said Sandy Freund, Lockheed Martin’s OSIRIS-Rex program manager. She remained with the 20 flight controllers based in Littleton, Colorado, during the intense event.
“No alcoholic beverages allowed at work, plus it’ll be very early in the morning,” she told Mashable two days before the capsule landing. “We actually had a whole conversation about when and if we should eat breakfast in the four hours between the capsule’s release and entry.”
Instead, they had to wolf down Flamin’ Hot Asteroids Cheetos and get back to work to ensure a divert engine burn would send the spacecraft away from Earth. The spacecraft “missed” the planet by just 485 miles.
OSIRIS-Apex, which stands for OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer, is a mission that will send the spacecraft to Apophis soon after the rock’s close approach of Earth in April 2029. Apophis, discovered in 2004, was selected because scientists believed it had a chance of hitting Earth in the future. Learning about the asteroid could be helpful in future efforts to deflect it, should that ever become necessary.
For what it’s worth, scientists now say Apophis won’t collide with Earth for at least 100 years.
Credit: University of Arizona illustration
Millions of space rocks orbit the sun. They’re the rocky rubble left over from the formation of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Most of that ancient detritus is too far away to pose a threat to this planet. The majority are in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but occasionally rocks get nudged into the inner solar system, relatively closer to Earth.
Scientists are, however, keeping a close watch on 30,000 large objects out there and estimate there could be 15,000 or so more waiting to be discovered. Using powerful telescopes to scan the sky, astronomers are finding about 500 new sizable space rocks in Earth’s solar system neighborhood each year.
“When I started working with asteroids after college, Apophis was the poster child for hazardous asteroids,” said Davide Farnocchia of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies in a 2021 statement. “There’s a certain sense of satisfaction to see it removed from the risk list, and we’re looking forward to the science we might uncover during its close approach in 2029.”
Apophis will come within 20,000 miles of Earth — less than one-tenth the distance between Earth and the moon — in 2029. That’s close enough that people in the Eastern Hemisphere should be able to see the 1,000-foot-wide space rock without binoculars or a telescope, according to NASA.
Though the spacecraft’s mechanisms to collect a sample are no longer in place, the robot will snap pictures and collect data on how our planet’s gravity affects Apophis’ orbit, spin, and surface. It’ll remain there for 18 months.
But first it must travel six more years and make several laps around the sun.