NASA wants to study asteroid Apophis with spacecraft fleet in 2029

Apophis' close approach will provide a "prime opportunity to demonstrate our space mission prowess."
Chris Young
An artist's impression of the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft.
An artist's impression of the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft.

NASA / GSFC / Univ. of Arizona 

For a short time after its discovery in 2004, astronomers thought an asteroid dubbed Apophis had a significant chance of impacting Earth in 2029.

Since then, more precise measurements of its trajectory have shown that it doesn't pose a significant risk to Earth in the near future.

When it does pass Earth in 2029, though, it will fly closer than some of Earth's satellites. And NASA could be ready to send a swarm of spacecraft to capture a wealth of data from the massive space rock.

The idea was floated last week at the Planetary Defense Conference in Vienna, Austria, by Bhavya Lal, NASA’s associate administrator for technology, policy, and strategy, a report from SpacePolicyOnline reveals.

Apophis could one day impact Earth

The NASA official explained that international space agencies could work together to send an international fleet of spacecraft to the 1,150-foot-wide (350 meters) asteroid before it reaches Earth on April 13, 2029.

They would utilize similar navigation technology to NASA's DART mission, which sent a spacecraft to collide with an asteroid called Dimorphos as part of a planetary defense technology test.

"Nature has provided us with such a prime opportunity to demonstrate our space mission prowess," Lal said at the Planetary Defense Conference. "In this case, to perform rapid reconnaissance of an approaching object that might be an impact threat to learn all we can about it and inform any action we might need to take to mitigate potential disaster."

Though Apophis, which is aptly named after the ancient Egyptian god of chaos, doesn't pose a danger to Earth in 2029, an impact was only recently ruled out. In 2021, the European Space Agency (ESA) stated that the space rock was stricken from the risk list, as it was no longer considered a threat for at least the next hundred years — scientists previously believed there was a slight chance of impact in 2068.

Apophis could, one day, be on a collision course with Earth, though, meaning any data we can collect on the massive space rock could prove to be valuable for future planetary defense efforts.

Apophis 2029 close approach provides unique opportunity

In 2029, Apophis will come within 20,000 miles (32,000 km) of Earth, meaning it will be visible with the naked eye, and will be ten times closer to Earth than the Moon. It will come even closer to Earth than some satellites in geostationary orbit.

NASA has already stated that its OSIRIS-REx mission will be redirected to study Apohis. Once it drops off its sample of the asteroid Bennu in September 2023, it will be renamed OSIRIS-APophis EXplorer, or OSIRIS-APEX, and will be redirected to meet Apophis as it makes its near approach to Earth.

The plan suggested by Lal, meanwhile, is only in the concept stage. With NASA and the global scientific community increasingly highlighting the importance of planetary defense technology, we wouldn't be surprised to see it gain more traction in the near future.

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