Forget about COVID-19 and the circus of the US presidential elections for one moment. According to the Center for Near Earth Objects Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we now have an asteroid coming our way. Yes, 2020 just keeps on getting better.
Before we all start panicking and theorising about what we did to deserve such a dingy year, it is important that we keep it together and look at the facts first. Forget about other publications that have quickly jumped on the opportunity to write up a great clickbait piece, try to ignore astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s added worries about the asteroid and rest assured that it actually has very few chances of hitting Earth—only 0.41 per cent chance to be more precise.
The celestial object known as 2018VP1 is projected to come close to Earth on 2 November 2020, only one day prior to the US’ dreaded Election Day. It was first identified at Palomar Observatory in California in 2018 and is very small for an asteroid, with a diameter of approximately 6.5 feet (0.002 kilometers).
This means that, as scary as it is to imagine an asteroid potentially hitting Earth, 2018VP1—what a charming name—poses no threat to us. “If it were to enter our planet’s atmosphere, it would disintegrate due to its extremely small size,” explained NASA in a statement, adding that “based on 21 observations spanning 12,968 days,” the agency has determined that the asteroid probably won’t have a deep impact.
Potentially hazardous objects, usually asteroids or comets, have an orbit taking them close to Earth and are large enough to cause significant regional damage if they ever hit the planet. 2018VP1 is not one of them. Earlier this year in August, an asteroid flew just 1,830 miles over the southern Indian Ocean—the closest such an object has flown past Earth on record.
The object, known as asteroid 2020 GC, was spotted by the Zwicky Transient Facility, a robotic camera which scans the sky, and was thought to be roughly the size of a large car. Its small size meant asteroid 2020 GC did not pose much of a threat to Earth either as it would have likely broken up in the planet’s atmosphere if it was on course for direct impact.
Meanwhile, a NASA spacecraft is now on a mission to attempt to descend on an asteroid and bring back a sample in a 10-second mission. The Osiris-Rex spacecraft has been circling the Bennu asteroid for nearly two years, hundreds of millions of miles away from Earth. Tomorrow, on Tuesday 20 October, it will try to collect a handful of dirt and gravel from its boulder-packed surface.
The mission will last just five to 10 seconds and hopes to bring back 60 grams worth of Bennu with the help of an 11 feet arm that will reach out for a sample. If the first attempt fails, Osiris-Rex will be able to try again but experts will still have to wait until 2023 before the samples are brought back to Earth.
Japan is the only country in the world to have successfully completed such a mission. It is planning to get samples back from another asteroid called Ryugu in December, 10 years after another successful mission to bring back part of an asteroid named Itokawa.