Asteroids are the small rocky bodies in the inner Solar System orbiting the Sun and their collisions – known as impact events – have played a significant role in shaping many planets. NASA is constantly watching cosmos, categorising any Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) as Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHO) if they could pose a threat to life on Earth. The most famous impact in the history of the blue planet, which wiped out the dinosaurs, can still be seen today in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.
Discovery Channel’s “Strip the Cosmos” revealed why NASA is studying the Chicxulub crater to learn more about a potential future event.
Peter Schultz, a scientist working at the Ames Laboratory, in California, said in 2019: “Asteroids have changed the Earth, they have changed the life on Earth, the Chicxulub impact was not that rare of an event.
“So it is critically important that we understand what happened then, just to understand what might happen in the future.
“Today we are going to do some experiment with this NASA Ames Vertical Gun, a really big gun that uses gun powder and hydrogen gas to send a projectile down through a long tube, into the chamber and slams into the target.
“It launches the projectile at a very high speed, around 5kps.
“Slamming into things and blowing them up, every kid would want this, I used to play in a sandbox in third grade, still doing it now.
“We want to watch what happens, then we can understand what may have happened 65 million years ago.”
Astronomer Phil Plait explained why the research is key.
He added: “Asteroids can bring a lot of pain to the Earth, big ones especially.
“We know that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a giant impact and giant impacts may have caused other mass extinctions in the past.“
Cosmologist Hakeem Oluseyi went on to explain to viewers why asteroid impacts may be far more regular than we think.
He stated: “You can’t see the crater from every asteroid that has ever hit Earth.
“The reason why is because the Earth has active geology and weathering, so most craters have been wiped away.”
The series went on to reveal how the Moon has more than 80,000 impact craters, which can be easily seen due to its lack of atmosphere.
Laura Danly, Curator at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles left viewers with a sobering thought.
She exclaimed: “There’s no question that at some point in the future, an asteroid will strike the Earth with enough energy to extinguish most life, if not all.”
Asteroid 101955 Bennu, formally known as 1999 RQ36, is a potentially hazardous object listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale.
Investigators have already warned the space agency that it could be devastating if they do not act.
According to a study by scientist Maria Eugenia Sansaturio, the 1999 asteroid may impact the Earth.
Dr Sansaturio warned in a report for the Solar System journal Icarus that there is a good chance of the asteroid striking.
She told Universe Today in 2010: “The total impact probability of asteroid 1999 RQ36 can be estimated as 0.00092, approximately one-in-a-thousand chance, but what is most surprising is that over half of this chance (0.00054) corresponds to 2182.”
However, NASA has a less destructive move for Bennu.
The space agency is currently running a mission with its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to find out more about the rock.
The spacecraft spent two years chasing Bennu down, before orbiting it for another two years and taking samples.
Then, in 2023, it will blast back to Earth to allow scientists from around the world to study it.
The mission team is particularly interested in learning the role that asteroids like Bennu – dark, primitive and apparently carbon-rich – may have played in creating life on Earth.
It will also help scientists to refine the odds of a strike on Earth.