Chicxulub, Mexico is the site of a crater more than 110 miles wide, a token left behind by the asteroid that crashed into Earth millions of years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs. Perhaps the story of the dinosaurs is why rumors of our own extinction circulate every time an asteroid is spotted on NASA’s radar.
An asteroid is a small, rocky object that orbits the sun. They’re actually known as minor planets, with larger asteroids called planetoids. Most of them live in the inner Solar System, in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Asteroids are often confused with meteors or meteorites, which are tiny bits of asteroids that have landed on Earth.
Weeks ago, an asteroid named 52768 (1988 OR2) was detected by NASA. Scientists acknowledged this as a potential extraterrestrial threat but later ruled it out. Rest assured, it will not strike Earth and destroy humanity. The asteroid is within 3,908,791 miles of Earth and is 1.1 to 2.5 miles wide, traveling at a speed of 19,461 miles per hour. To put that in perspective, it’s about the size of half of Mount Everest.
Despite its size, the event of an asteroid collision is extremely rare. In truth, an asteroid-related disaster like this one only occurs once or twice in about a thousand years. Potential future disasters are categorized by the size of the asteroid and how much damage it would cause. You probably won’t see an asteroid similar to 52768 on Earth in your lifetime, and even if you do, it most likely won’t be your end. Asteroids similar to 52768 in size don’t cause much damage.
In fact, tons of small debris and a few asteroids enter Earth’s atmosphere every day. However, most are burned up before they can land. Those that manage to survive the heat of Earth’s atmosphere usually land at sea or some remote region, like Antarctica.
While they are extremely rare, it would take only one catastrophic event to cause disastrous consequences. Several NASA missions have been launched to prevent future asteroid-related disasters from happening.
One of these projects is the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Its goal is to study Bennu, an asteroid near Earth, and bring back a sample of the asteroid. From there, scientists can study the sample and learn more about this extraterrestrial object and space in general. Japan’s Hayabusa2 is doing the same thing, visiting an asteroid, taking samples, and returning to Earth in a few years.
Another project of NASA’s is DART, an acronym for Double Asteroid Redirection Test. This project is a planetary defense test, in the event that a large asteroid is on a direct collision course with Earth. It’s still in the testing phase, but its ultimate goal is to be able to deflect an asteroid from hitting Earth. Its first test will be to deflect a small asteroid from hitting another asteroid. If it succeeds, NASA will be a step closer to ensuring Earth’s protection from threats coming from deep space.
Other projects include the NEOCam and the Sentry System, both engineered to collect data on celestial objects and their potential to harm the only known inhabitable planet in the Solar System. The NEOCam, or the Near-Earth Object Camera, characterizes objects that are close to the Earth, identifying and classifying them. Meanwhile, the Sentry System monitors asteroids for possibilities of future impact with Earth, so if a large object has a high percentage of crashing, actions can be done in preparation for this event. Fortunately, it won’t happen soon. Asteroid 52768 will pass Earth on Wednesday, April 29, at 4:56 a.m. ET, and will not collide with our planet.