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16 Nov, 2020 13:38

NASA flag FIVE asteroids en route TODAY, as scientists mull planetary defense mission to planet-killer Apophis in 2029

NASA flag FIVE asteroids en route TODAY, as scientists mull planetary defense mission to planet-killer Apophis in 2029

NASA has sounded the ‘potentially hazardous object’ alarm over five asteroids expected to buzz the Earth’s vicinity. It comes as the astronomy community discusses the threat posed by the ‘God of Chaos’ asteroid Apophis.

By all accounts, 2020 has been one hell of a tough year, and with the end in sight, it’s understandable that many are wondering whether humanity will make it to 2021, so NASA warnings about incoming asteroid swarms are unwelcome news. 

On Monday, not one but five asteroids will enter our cosmic backyard. 

First up is 2020 VR4, measuring 27 meters in diameter (about five giraffes) which will pass the planet at 2.2 million kilometers. 

Shortly after will be the closest encounter of the space rock kind, as the telephone-pole-sized (11 meters) 2020 VM5, buzzes past at 426,000km. To put that in context, the average distance between Earth and the Moon is about 239,000 miles (385,000km), so it’ll be close but not too close for comfort. 

Bringing up the rear are: the nine-meter 2020 VA3, at a distance of 4.2 million kilometers; the 13-meter 2020 VS1 at 2.8 million kilometers; and lastly, will be 2020 VB3, measuring twice the height of Michael Jordan (or four meters) at 589,000km. 

However, these close flybys pale in comparison to the threat posed by Asteroid 99942 Apophis.

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Discovered in 2004, the 370-meter-long space rock ranks fourth on NASA’s Sentry list of biggest asteroid threats to life on Earth. While the odds of the Apophis striking the Earth in 2068 are somewhere in the region of one in 150,000, the asteroid is also due to pay our planet a visit in April 2029, and now the scientific community suspects this particular flyby may be far closer than previously calculated.

The extreme close up will be courtesy of Yarkovsky acceleration, a phenomenon in which an asteroid gains propulsion asymmetrically, as chemicals on its Sun-facing side expand and erupt, slightly altering its orbit through minor explosions and bursts of gas. 

According to a presentation at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences virtual conference given by astronomer David Tholen from the University of Hawaii, Apophis’ April 2029 close approach, may come within the orbits of some of our communication satellites.  

“Knowledge is the first line of planetary defense, and the 2029 Apophis encounter is a once-per-thousand-year opportunity,” the Lunar and Planetary Institute states, adding that discussions have already begun regarding potential “possible in-situ missions” on board the “poster child of potentially hazardous asteroids.”

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