OSIRIS-REx: From Bennu’s Return to Apophis’ Exploration
Embarking on the OSIRIS-Apex Mission
The NASA spacecraft that has been on a seven-year journey, OSIRIS-REx, has recently returned asteroid gravel and soil from Bennu and is now headed towards its next destination, the asteroid Apophis. After successfully dropping off the capsule containing fragments of Bennu, the spacecraft fired its thrusters to keep from following it into Earth’s atmosphere. This action marked the commencement of a new mission, dubbed OSIRIS-Apex, designed to explore Apophis, a near-Earth asteroid once perceived as a potential threat to our planet.
OSIRIS-REx’s Voyage to Apophis
OSIRIS-REx, or O-Rex, as it is affectionately called, is expected to reach Apophis in 2029. While some team members reveled in the successful return of the Bennu sample, others were already gearing up for the next mission. The main goal of OSIRIS-Apex is to study Apophis, a task deemed particularly important since scientists had earlier believed the asteroid could pose a threat to Earth. While the possibility of collision with Earth has been ruled out for at least 100 years, the data collected about the asteroid could be vital for future deflection strategies, should they be necessary.
The Threat of Space Rocks
Millions of space rocks, remnants from the formation of our solar system, orbit the sun. Most are distant enough not to pose a threat, but some occasionally get nudged closer to the inner solar system, and hence, closer to Earth. Scientists estimate that they are closely tracking around 30,000 large objects and that there could be 15,000 or more yet to be discovered.
When the spacecraft reaches Apophis, it will come within 20,000 miles of Earth, a distance close enough that people in the Eastern Hemisphere should be able to see it without the need for binoculars or a telescope. Although the spacecraft no longer has the mechanisms to collect a sample, it will take pictures and collect data on how our planet’s gravity impacts the asteroid’s orbit, spin, and surface. The spacecraft will remain there for 18 months, but first, it must travel six more years and make several laps around the sun.
A comprehensive understanding of asteroids like Apophis not only enriches our knowledge of the solar system but also equips humanity to potentially deflect any future asteroid threats. As OSIRIS-REx continues its journey to Apophis, it embodies our insatiable curiosity about the cosmos and our determination to safeguard our planet.
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