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NASA’s Asteroid Mission Could Save Earth From Potential Impact

Sep 12, 2016 05:58 AM EDT
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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid-sampling mission, which launched on Sept. 8, could help protect the Earth from a catastrophic impact, astronomers said.
(Photo : TBIT / Pixabay)

NASA's asteroid-sample-return mission could help save the Earth from life-threatening asteroid impacts in the future, scientists said.

On Sept. 8, NASA launched its OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security- Regolith Explorer) mission, which aims to collect rock and dust samples from an asteroid. The target asteroid is Bennu, a dark and roundish asteroid circling the sun just within the orbit of Mars and is included on NASA's list of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids.

The purpose of the mission is to study asteroid samples that could provide knowledge about the origin and evolution of life on Earth. Moreover, the mission could also provide insight on how to prevent a potential asteroid collision.

"If astronomers someday identify an asteroid that presents a significant impact hazard to Earth, the first step will be to gather more information about that asteroid," Edward Beshore, deputy principal investigator for the mission, said in a report by National Post. "Fortunately the ORISIS-REX mission will have given us the experience and tools needed to do the job."

While asteroid Bennu is unlikely to crash into Earth, scientists think that by understanding and studying its composition, they could find out how to prevent other space rocks that could potentially hit the planet.

"I think that's the whole reason we have missions like OSIRIS-REx - to go out and see what we really know about asteroids," Lindley Johnson, director of NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office, said in a news conference held on Sept. 7.

The mission will also allow scientists to study the sun's effect on the orbital paths of small space rocks or the Yarkovsky effect, which occurs when the orbit of a rock is altered by a small thrust caused by the radiating heat that comes from sunlight.

According to NASA's planetary defense scientists, large rocks have already been found, but only half of the rocks the size of Bennu have been identified. Researchers are using NEOWISE (Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) -- a telescope mission that observes near-Earth objects.

Apart from observations, NASA has partnered with the European Space Agency (ESA) in working on the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), which will study an asteroid and its moon, Space.com reports. The mission will test the space agency's capability of deflecting an asteroid before it impacts Earth.

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