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NASA’s OSIRIS-APEX Mission Prepares to Study Near-Earth Asteroid Apophis in Unprecedented Detail

Astronomers anticipate a historic close encounter as the Empire State Building-sized asteroid approaches Earth in 2029.

NASA’s OSIRIS-APEX mission is gearing up for an extraordinary opportunity to observe and study the near-Earth asteroid Apophis, roughly the size of the Empire State Building. The asteroid is set to make its closest approach to Earth in 2029, coming within 20,000 miles – a distance closer than the moon’s proximity to our planet.

Originally considered a potential impact threat in 2004, subsequent observations have ruled out any collision risk for at least a century. Nevertheless, the upcoming 2029 approach offers a unique chance for the OSIRIS-APEX spacecraft, formerly known as OSIRIS-REx, to conduct an in-depth analysis of this celestial event.

The spacecraft, repurposed after its notable soil-sample retrieval mission from a different asteroid in 2020, is on course to rendezvous with Apophis during its close encounter. The mission, directed by University of Arizona scientists, aims to provide insights into planetary formation and gather knowledge that could contribute to the development of a defense system against potential asteroid collisions.

Apophis, an oblong and somewhat peanut-shaped asteroid, is approximately 1,110 feet (340 meters) across. As it passes within 19,800 miles (31,860 km) of Earth on April 13, 2029, it is expected to be visible to the naked eye for a few hours, particularly over Africa and Europe.

The OSIRIS-APEX spacecraft is poised to remain in close proximity to Apophis for 18 months, utilizing rocket thrusters to maneuver around the asteroid’s surface. This extended observation period will provide valuable data about the effects of Earth’s gravity on Apophis, potentially causing changes in its surface and rotational spin.

The study of Apophis is crucial for planetary defense efforts, offering insights into the composition and behavior of near-Earth asteroids. Understanding the structure of these celestial bodies enhances the capability to develop effective asteroid-deflection strategies, mitigating potential impact threats.

Asteroid 2001 QQ142 is also making headlines as it approaches Earth at a distance of only 5.5 million kilometers. While not posing a direct threat, its colossal size of nearly 2,200 feet and rapid speed of 23,975 kilometers per hour make it a significant celestial event.

In the broader context, NASA continues to monitor asteroid 388945 (2008 TZ3), a giant space rock predicted to make a close approach on May 15. Although expected to pass at a distance of 3.5 million miles, its size—comparable to the Empire State Building—highlights the ongoing importance of planetary defense measures.

As humanity remains vigilant about potential asteroid impacts, ongoing missions and advancements, such as NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), aim to enhance our ability to deflect and mitigate the risks posed by these cosmic travelers.

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