How are scientists preparing for Apophis' alarming approach to Earth?

In about five years, a potentially dangerous asteroid will swing by Earth at an alarmingly close distance of less than 20,000 miles (32,000 km). During this rare encounter, Apophis will be 10 times closer to Earth than the Moon, and scientists want to take full advantage of its visit.

Apophis is on a trajectory toward Earth on April 13, 2029. When it was first discovered in 2004, the 1,100-foot-wide (335-meter) near-Earth object was classified as a hazardous asteroid that could impact our planet. However, subsequent observations reassured scientists that there was no need to panic yet, and that the asteroid had fallen. There is no chance of colliding with Earth for at least another century.

This is very good news given the size of this object and the serious damage it could do if it ever struck our planet. Hopefully that never happens, but objects of this size tend to collide with Earth about once every 80,000 years, unleashing catastrophic damage and affecting winters on a global scale.

The images of Apophis were taken by radio antennas at the Deep Space Network's Goldstone Complex in California and the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia when the asteroid was 10.6 million miles (17 million kilometers) away.

The images of Apophis were taken by radio antennas at the Deep Space Network's Goldstone Complex in California and the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia when the asteroid was 10.6 million miles (17 million kilometers) away.
picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech and NSF/AUI/GBO

During the upcoming flyby, scientists want to explore the asteroid to determine whether Earth's gravitational field will have an effect on Apophis' orientation, composition, and rotation. It can trigger asteroid earthquakes, for example, causing a shift in how their materials are distributed within them, or changing the appearance of their surfaces. Scientists hope to chronicle these potential changes by comparing observations of the asteroid before and after it collides with Earth in 2029. Physical changes to an asteroid could alter its orbital path, so scientists will obviously want to document that.

Private space companies like Blue Origin and startup Exploration Labs, or ExLabs, have come up with proposals for missions to rendezvous with Apophis before its expected flyby, SpaceNews mentioned. During a recent workshop at the European Space Agency's hub in the Netherlands, the companies presented their mission concepts in an effort to learn more about the asteroid and other space rocks that could pose a potential danger to Earth.

Blue Origin's proposal included the use of… Blue Ring orbital platform To deliver the payloads to Apophis. Blue Ring, which is scheduled to debut by the end of 2024, is designed to provide comprehensive services to commercial and government customers, and can host payloads weighing up to 6,600 pounds (3,000 kg).

An artist's concept of Blue Origin's upcoming Blue Ring orbital transfer vehicle.
picture: Blue original

The orbital platform could be used to deliver instruments or deployable spacecraft to Apophis for low-cost, low-risk missions, SpaceNews quoted Steve Squires, chief scientist at Blue Origin, as saying.

For its proposal, ExLabs presented an idea that had previously been studied by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Distributed Radar Observations of Interior, or DROID, will send a spacecraft to Apophis, which deploys two cubesats to conduct a “CAT scan” of the asteroid's interior, according to SpaceNews. The mission will launch in May 2028 and arrive at Apophis in February 2029.

Earlier in February, NASA hosted a workshop To seek ideas from the private sector “on innovative approaches to missions during the Earth flyby of asteroid Apophis in 2029.”

NASA's OSIRIS-APEX spacecraft, formerly known as OSIRIS-REx, already exists On her way to study Apophis And note the changes that the asteroid may undergo as it approaches Earth. After getting off Samples from the asteroid Bennu In the Utah desert, the spacecraft was redirected for a new mission, in which it had to make close passes of the Sun, plus three assists from Earth's gravity, to reach Apophis in five years.

The space agency also has a spare pair of spacecraft that can be reused to study the asteroid Apophis. The Janus mission was supposed to launch in August 2022, journeying into space with the Psyche spacecraft to explore the mineral-rich asteroid. An unfortunate software glitch delayed Psyche's launch two months before it was due to take off Which affects the riding tasks.

Psyche later launched in October 2023But the new launch window was unable to deliver the twin Janus probes to the mission's original targets. As a result, the spacecraft was removed from the launch manifest and stored at Lockheed Martin.

The two spacecraft were originally intended to visit asteroids 1996 FG3 and 1991 VH, but they could be reused to study Apophis instead. Although there are some differences between Apophis and the original goals of the Janus mission, the twin probes can still fly by and make similar observations for Earth's next visitor.

And this is just the beginning. It is possible that other missions will be announced in the coming months and years given the scientific importance and the rarity of such a close encounter.

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