NASA has warned that the gigantic ‘apocalypse asteroid’ it captured in a stunning photograph could release 80,000 times more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb if it collides with Earth – potentially ending life as we know it.
Named Bennu, the 500 foot rock is taller than the Empire State building and estimated to be 1,664 times heavier than the Titanic.
And scientists say a collision with Earth could potentially have a cataclysmic effect on millions of lives.
But the space agency insists immediate doomsday preparations won’t be necessary, as the rock is not expected to fly close the planet until next century.
In the meantime, NASA’s probe OSIRIS-Rex is currently orbiting the asteroid on an observatory mission, with plans to land on its surface in 2020.
The probe captured a stunning image this week, showing the Earth and the Moon resembling a mere dot in the distance to the 87 million tonne asteroid.
OSIRIS-Rex will collect samples of the rock before returning to Earth, hopefully helping to unlock some of the secrets behind the origins of human existence.
Scientists hope the asteroid will help to prove a theory that billions of years ago asteroids colliding with our planet transferred vital chemicals to the Earth’s surface, prompting living organisms to formulate.
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The stunning image captured by OSIRIS-Rex shows Earth and the moon (bottom left) in the distance, with Bennu (right) seemingly hurtling towards them
The probe will be landing on Bennu’s surface (shown) in 2020 to hopefully help uncover some of the secrets behind our existence on Earth
WHAT DID NASA FIND?
Data obtained from the spacecraft’s two spectrometers, the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES), reveal the presence of molecules that contain oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together, known as ‘hydroxyls.’
The team suspects that these hydroxyl groups exist globally across the asteroid in water-bearing clay minerals, meaning that at some point, Bennu’s rocky material interacted with water.
While Bennu itself is too small to have ever hosted liquid water, the finding does indicate that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu’s parent body, a much larger asteroid.
But Bennu, dubbed the ‘apocalypse asteroid’, also carries a potential threat to millions of lives.
Scientists say if Bennu collided with Earth the impact would release more energy than all the nuclear weapons detonated in history.
On August 6, 1945 the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on the Japanese city Hiroshima, killing nearly 100,000 people in a bid to end World War II.
The weapon released energy equivalent to 16 kilotons of TNT across a one mile blast radius. But Scientists believe the impact of a strike from Bennu could best the bombing nearly 80,000 times over.
Reassuringly though, NASA insist the chances of it colliding – around one in 2,700 – are very slim, and humans would likely live to see another day even if it did.
But on the contrary, should the rock defy the odds, experts say the spacecrafts designed by NASA to stop asteroids would likely be ineffective against Bennu.
There may be hope for their newest venture, the HAMMER – or Hyper-velocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response vehicle – that’s designed to either blow up asteroids with nuclear bombs or steer the asteroid onto a different course.
However, experts say that just one HAMMER is likely to be as ineffective as its predecessor against Bennu – unless the less favorable nuclear option is utilized.
‘The consequences would be dire,’ said Kirsten Howley, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who is part of the planetary defense team.
The rock holds a one in 2,700 chance of colliding with the planet between 2175 and 2199, according to NASA
Current defense methods designed by the space company would likely prove to be ineffective against the giant Bennu, according to experts
For scientists, launching just one deflector craft to Bennu could take up to seven and a half years.
And Howley believes its better to act sooner rather than later in precautionary preparation.
‘The push you need to give it is very small if you deflect the asteroid 50 years out.
‘The probability of a Bennu impact may be 1 in 2,700 today, but that will almost certainly change – for better or worse – as we gather more data about its orbit.
‘Delay is the greatest enemy of any asteroid deflection mission,’ she said.
HOW WILL NASA’S OSIRIS-REX MISSION TO TAKE SAMPLES FROM AN ASTEROID WORK?
Osiris-Rex is the first US mission designed to return a piece of an asteroid to Earth.
Scientists say the ancient asteroid could hold clues to the origin of life.
It’s believed to have formed 4.5 billion years ago, a remnant of the solar system’s building blocks.
The spacecraft launched on September 8, 2016 at 19:05 EST aboard an Atlas V rocket.
After a careful survey of Bennu to characterise the asteroid and locate the most promising sample sites, Osiris-Rex will collect between 2 and 70 ounces (about 60 to 2,000 grams) of surface material with its robotic arm and return the sample to Earth via a detachable capsule in 2023.
To capture samples on the surface, the craft will hover over a specific area and ‘will be sent down at a very slow and gently’ 4 inches (10 cm) per second.
The spacecraft will also carry a laser altimeter, a suite of cameras provided by the University of Arizona, spectrometers and lidar, which is similar to radar, using light instead of radio waves to measure distance.