Asteroid Apophis is going to have a close encounter with Earth in 2029 and astronomers aren’t the only ones preparing for the event.
20 students at MIT are designing a space mission to get close to the asteroid as it comes within about 21,770 miles (35,040km) from Earth. The mission will get more information on the asteroid, as well as measure the effects of Earth and other planetary bodies on it.
MIT faculty members Richard Binzel, professor of planetary sciences, and David Miller, the Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, are advising the students as they design their missions.
The approaching asteroid is about 1,066 feet (325m) across and weighs 20 million metric tons. An asteroid passing this close to Earth is a rarity, so the students are working hard to get their calculations just right.
Binzel said in a press release that this project is the “kick-starter” that he hopes will encourage space agencies to study the asteroid.
“There have been plenty of missions to comets and asteroids, so why is this unique?” Binzel said. “Apophis is coming so close that Earth’s gravity is going to tug and redirect its path. The Earth is going to give it a big thunk.”
The proposed spacecraft would carry instruments to study Apophis’ shape, size, density, surface topography, rotation rate, and spin rate. The craft will have to launch by August 2026 to cross paths with the asteroid in March 2028, and then follow it until the mission’s end in 2033.
The students presented their work to NASA scientists and engineers, who asked direct questions that will help shape a future proposal for the mission. NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson said the students made a “really good effort” and stated that the project is “almost ready for a NASA proposal.”
While China and the European Space Agency are both considering missions to Apophis, should this proposal remain in budget and successfully beat out other competition, there’s a real chance it could be approved for an official NASA mission.