‘God of Destruction’ asteroid Apophis will hit Earth in 2029 – and could host a tiny spacecraft

In just under half a century, a 1,000-foot-wide (305-meter-wide) asteroid named after the Egyptian god of chaos and destruction, Apophis, will pass within 30,000 miles (48,300 kilometers) of Earth. Scientists have no intention of letting a rare close crossing of a space rock of this size go to waste.

On April 13, 2029 – a Friday, no less – when Apophis, formally known as (99942) Apophis, makes its closest approach to Earth, it will be so prominent across our planet that it will be visible with the unaided eye. NASA’s OSIRIS-APEX spacecraft (formerly OSIRIS-REx) will be on hand to meet a near-Earth asteroid (NEA) firsthand. But, if things change, NASA’s mission could be accompanied by many small satellites during its rendezvous.

Under the admirable project “NEAlight”, a team from Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) and led by space engineer Hakan Kayal has revealed three concepts for such spacecraft. Each of the proposed satellites will aim to take advantage of this asteroid passage because the Earth emits such an event once every millennium. The back? To collect data that could help scientists better understand the solar system, and maybe even help develop defense measures against dangerous asteroids.

Related: Asteroid Apophis will zip past Earth in 2029 – could a space rock hit us?

Why is Apophis a suitable target for a planetary defense study? Well, discovered in 2004, the asteroid quickly rose to the top of tables that measure the risk of potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs), or asteroids with a width of 460 feet (140 meters) or more which comes within 20 lunar distances from Earth.

Because of Apophis’ size and the close proximity to Earth that its orbit brings it, the asteroid remained at the top of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) “impact risk list” of PHAs and NASA’s Sentry Risk Table for 17 years. It wasn’t until the close flyby of the asteroid – a space rock almost as wide as the Empire State Building – in March 2021 that allowed NASA scientists to determine that Apophis will not hit Earth for at least 100 years .

Although we now know that Apophis will not collide with Earth in the next century, its scientific impact in 2029 will still be great, and its trajectory will be closely watched by space agencies from countries around the globe.

In addition, as an asteroid that formed around the same time as the planets from material left over from around the infant sun, Apophis offers researchers a unique opportunity to determine what the chemical composition of the solar system was around 4.6 billion years ago.

Meet the rendezvous candidates

Despite the fact that we know there are about 1.3 million asteroids in the solar system, of which 2,500 are considered potentially hazardous (although none are expected to hit Earth for at least a century), spacecraft missions to study asteroids are rare.

To date, only 20 missions have been deployed to study asteroids in situ, including the aforementioned OSIRIS-REx, the Japanese craft Hayabusa1 and Hayabusa2, the ESA’s Rosetta space probe, and NASA’s asteroid mission Lucy, which is traveling under present to those Trojan asteroids. share their orbit with Jupiter. Therefore, the JMU team must carefully consider their options when considering future asteroid probe spacecraft.

A spacecraft is seen above an asteroid in space.

A spacecraft is seen above an asteroid in space.

The first concept of the team is a small satellite that joins Apophis for a period of two months as it makes its close approach to Earth in April 2029. The craft will adhere to the space rock “God of Destruction” for weeks after that, even as it is. moves. During the mission, this German national spacecraft will photograph Apophis and take measurements that will document any changes made by the NEA during its flight.

This particular mission would be challenging because of its length, the distance that would have to be traveled, and because the craft would have to operate independently for long periods of time. It would also require a launch of at least a year before Apophis arrives in Earth’s vicinity.

Illustration of a satellite with solar panel wings.  The central object is a rectangular prism.Illustration of a satellite with solar panel wings.  The central object is a rectangular prism.

Illustration of a satellite with solar panel wings. The central object is a rectangular prism.

The team’s second concept involves integration with a larger spacecraft being planned by the ESA called RAMSES. This mission will be equipped with smaller satellites, measuring equipment and telescopes. RAMSES, named after the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses the Great, would travel to Apophis and stay with the asteroid as it passed Earth.

If the second concept is realized, the JMU team will design one of the small satellites carrying RAMSES, and this project will require less technical effort than the first concept and promises more scientific knowledge achieve better.

One of the main issues facing the second concept, however, involves placing REMEESES on the ground – not literally, but figuratively. Its success will depend on the willingness of GSE partner countries to finance the mission. Again, at least 365 days would be required to ensure the success of this concept.

Related Stories:

— Asteroid Apophis will visit Earth in 2029. Why do scientists want NASA to send a probe there first?

– NASA’s OSIRIS-APEX asteroid probe wakes up after its last close pass to the sun

– NASA can’t wait for its OSIRIS-APEX spacecraft to meet ‘God of Chaos’ asteroid Apophis in 2029

The third concept involves a small satellite that will only briefly fly over Apophis when the asteroid is at its closest point to Earth, capturing images of the asteroid in the process. This concept would require much less effort, and the craft would be relatively cheap.

The disadvantage of concept 3, however, is that its observation time would be limited, which would limit the amount of information this mission would add to our understanding of asteroids.

On the plus side, the small-scale mission could launch just two days before Apophis arrives. Also, a successful observation of Apophis by concept 3 would demonstrate the ability of small and inexpensive satellites to study asteroids, which could lead to increased interest in future asteroid-studying in situ missions. .

The NEAlight project started at the beginning of May 2024; between now and April 30, 2025, JMU scientists will work out the requirements and specifics of the respective missions.

Beyond the Apophis visit, the three observed concepts could be options for future missions to other solar system planets, the moon — or perhaps other interesting NEAs.

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