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The Nerds Are Going To Save Our Planet From An Asteriod Impact...At Some Point

Update Date: Jun 26, 2017 11:23 PM EDT
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Space X cargo capsule returns home
NASA sends back pictures of asteroid Vesta
(Photo : Getty Images)

Keep drinking and paying your credit card bills. The Earth will (almost certainly) not be destroyed by an asteroid in 2029 as previously feared.

In 2004, the chance of a large asteroid called "99942 Apophis" hitting the Earth was calculated at almost 1 in 25. Now the odds have been revised to 1 in 149,000.

What is promising about the passing of the asteroid is that MIT scientists are going to be able to send a probe up to learn more about future asteroids and how we might predict and possibly destroy or deflect them before they hit our planet.

Apophis is predicted to pass within 18,600 miles of Earth. That doesn't sound very close, but in space standards that is a near miss. If the asteroid were to hit Earth, the blast could destroy a large city with the equivalent of 880 million tons of TNT. 

"Asteroid Apophis is like 'the poster child' for understanding how we might someday deal with an actual asteroid threat," said Dr. Richard P Binzel, a planetary science professor at MIT "Its 2029 close approach, passing within Earth's geosynchronous satellite ring, is an extremely rare learning opportunity." 

Studying Apophis will shed light on how our solar system was formed and what we can do to mount a planetary defense against future asteroids. Some ideas of the past include deflecting the incoming asteroid with paint balls. In 2012, Sung Wook Paek, a graduate student in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, says if timed just right, the initial force from the pellets would bump an asteroid off course; over time, the sun's photons would deflect the asteroid even more. Other ideas included detonating a nuclear bomb near an asteroid (that one may have some repercussions) or equipping spacecraft as "gravity tractors," using a craft's gravitational field to pull an asteroid off its path. 

Thankfully, we do not have to deflect or destroy this asteroid, we don't think. It is not likely to hit Earth in 2029, but it will pass close enough for us to take advantage of a great opportunity to study it and devise a plan for when an asteroid actually is bearing down on us. 

"Apophis is the size of an aircraft carrier (1200 feet long) with a mass of 40 million tons," Binzel said. "An object this large passes this close to Earth only about once per thousand years.  So the idea of the mission study is to see how to seize the opportunity to study Apophis inside and out." 

The chance that an asteroid will collide with Earth is very real. A large asteroid hits our planet about once in every 80,000 years. According to the calender, we are due. The government is taking this threat seriously and it approved $50 million for near-earth object observations and planetary defense in 2016, up from just $4 million in 2010.

"Apophis comes so close that the Earth will cause tidal stress inside the asteroid, possibly shaking it or even reshaping it," Binzel said. "How Apophis responds will tell us how it is constructed, something we will need to know for any asteroid that might ever pose a real threat." 

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