Take a look at the Earth and an ‘apocalypse asteroid’ which could hit us one day

Nasa has released an incredible image showing Earth, the moon and a huge space rock which could plough into our planet next century.

The photo was taken by the OSIRIS-Rex prove as it orbits Asteroid Bennu. a 500 metre-wide monster that has a very small chance of hitting us.

It can be seen in the right of the picture, whilst the Earth and moon are visible in the left.

At the end of last year, Nasa’s OSIRIS-REx probe went into orbit around Bennu and in 2020 it will land on it before collecting a sample and bringing it back to Earth.

This picture shows Earth on the left and asteroid Bennu on the right (Photo: Nasa)

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It’s believed Bennu may contain the building blocks of life, so recovering a sample will allow scientists to test a theory that asteroids carried vital chemical to earth which sparked the genesis of living organisms.

But the behemoth could also bring death on a gigantic scale, so the tests will also help to understand our nemesis and how to make sure it doesn’t hit us.

If a disastrous impact came to pass, it would release more energy than all the nuclear weapons detonated in the entirety of human history.

Bennu is as wide as five football fields and weighs around 79 billion kilograms, which is 1,664 times heavier than the Titanic.

It has a 1 in 2,700-chance of striking Earth between 2175 and 2199 – which is really very small, so there’s no need to worry unduly for your great, great grandchildren’s safety.

Bennu is big enough to destroy a city

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It is estimated that the energy unleashed in this impact would be equivalent to 1,200 megatons, which is 80,000 times the energy released by the Hiroshima bomb.

Although it would create a crater which would be more than two miles wide, our species would probably live to fight another day.

‘We’re not talking about an asteroid that could destroy the Earth,’ Nasa Osiris-Rex principal investigator Dante Lauretta said in 2016. ‘We’re not anywhere near that kind of energy for an impact.’

However, you might not want to abandon plans to turn your mum and dad’s basement into a bunker just yet – because there’s still a chance it might hit.

And if we do discover that Bennu is coming for us, we might not be able to save ourselves very easily.

Bennu could easily destroy London if it ever hit us (Photo: Getty)

A Nasa spacecraft designed to save Earth from asteroids is ‘inadequate’ and will not be able to nudge such a huge rock on course which guarantees it doesn’t hit Earth in 2175 without using nuclear weapons.

That’s the warning from members of a US ‘national planetary defence team’ who published a study earlier this year which says it may be impossible to redirect a Bennu unless we bring out the big guns.

Nasa is already working on a craft called HAMMER (Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response vehicle) that’s designed to blow up asteroids with nuclear bombs or steer the asteroid on a trajectory which means it won’t smash into Earth.

The second option is preferred because it gives more control over the path of the asteroid and doesn’t risk showering our planet with radioactive rock fragments.

But just one of the tiny HAMMER crafts will probably be unable to deflect Bennu, scientists said, meaning the dangerous nuclear option could be our only hope.

A Nasa artist’s impression of the Osiris-Rex spacecraft orbiting Asteroid Bennu

In a study, academics who work alongside Nasa as part of the planetary defence team ‘ultimately concluded that using a single HAMMER spacecraft as a battering ram would prove inadequate for deflecting an object like Bennu’.

‘The consequences would be dire,’ said Kirsten Howley, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who is part of the planetary defence team.

‘This study aims to help us shorten the response timeline when we do see a clear and present danger so we can have more options to deflect it. The ultimate goal is to be ready to protect life on Earth.’

Nasa’s HAMMER is just nine metres tall and weighs 8.8 tonnes. Which means it will need a lot of time to push a huge asteroid onto a new course.

‘The push you need to give it is very small if you deflect the asteroid 50 years out,’ Howley added.

‘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.’

The Osiris-Rex craft being tested ahead of launch (Picture: Nasa)

The researchers said it would take at least 7.4 years to send a deflector craft to Bennu and ‘many years for the small change in speed to accumulate into a sufficient change in trajectory’.

If we do what humans normally do and leave things until the last minute, the asteroid will be impossible to deflect unless we build a vast number of spaceships – something which would simply not be possible right now.

A mission launched in 2125 would require up to 53 launches of the Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying a single HAMMER to send enough of the planet-saving crafts to Bennu.

‘When many launches are required for a successful deflection, the mission success becomes more difficult, due to the failure rate associated with each individual launch,” said Megan Bruck Syal, LLNL physicist and coauthor on the paper.

‘If we only had ten years from launch, we would need to hit Bennu with hundreds of tonnes just to barely deflect it off of an Earth-impacting path, requiring dozens of successful launches and impact at the asteroid.’

Osiris-Rex will collect a sample of Bennu and bring it back to Earth (Picture: Nasa)

The team concluded that nuking Bennu could be the only guaranteed way of saving ourselves, as long as the mission is carried out safely.

‘Successful disruption requires ensuring that the asteroid pieces are sufficiently small and well-dispersed so that they pose a much-reduced threat to the Earth,’ Syal added.

‘Disruption carried out as late as tens of days before impact can still be very effective in reducing the total damage felt by Earth. Previous work by our research group has shown that the impacting debris is reduced to less than 1% of its initial mass by disrupting the asteroid, even at these late times.’

You’ll be able to watch a livestream of the Bennu encounter starting from 4.45pm on Nasa’s Facebook and Twitter page as well as its online television station.


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