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August 26, 2012

There are lots of reasons to study asteroids. There’s the purely scientific: Asteroids are leftovers from the formation of the planets, so they can tell us a lot about the materials and processes that formed our own Earth. There’s the practical: Asteroids could provide metals, ice, and other resources for future solar system explorers. And there’s the scary: Some asteroids could someday hit Earth, devastating large areas of our planet.

All of those are among the motivations behind OSIRIS-Rex, a mission to study an asteroid that comes close to Earth’s orbit around the Sun. It’s scheduled to launch in 2016, and enter orbit around asteroid 1999 RQ36 three years later. At the end of the mission, it’ll scoop up a few ounces of dirt for return to Earth.

RQ36 comes close to Earth’s orbit around the Sun, so it’s a potential danger, says Ed Beshore, a mission scientist:

BESHORE: It is one of the most threatening of all asteroids right now. It has about, roughly a one-in-a-thousand chance of hitting the Earth late in the 22nd century. It’s about a 500- to 600-meter-wide asteroid, and because of that, if it did hit the Earth, it would actually be a pretty destructive event. It probably wouldn’t be a civilization-threatening event, but it would be catastrophic.

Studying the asteroid will help refine its orbit, and help scientists ponder ways to protect Earth from future catastrophes — all while learning about the birth of the planets.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012


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