0630 GMT January 20, 2018
The ‘Bennu’ asteroid is bigger than the Empire State building. It is half a kilometer in diameter at its widest point and travels at speeds of 63,000 miles per hour, express.co.uk wrote.
The giant asteroid has been a concern to scientists since being discovered in 1999, due to the potential threat it poses to Earth.
It crosses the Earth’s orbit every six years. But Bennu is getting closer and is due to pass between the Earth and the moon in 2135 — a distance of about 290,000km away.
And the US space agency is taking the threat of an impact so seriously that it is launching a probe to collect rock samples to help find out more about the asteroid and the risk it presents to humanity.
Dante Lauretta, professor of planetary science at Arizona University, and the NASA expert in charge of the mission to Bennu, warned: “That 2135 fly-by is going to tweak Bennu’s orbit, potentially putting it on course for the Earth later that century.”
He added: “We estimate the chance of impact at about one in 2,700 between 2175 and 2196.”
The force of Bennu striking the Earth would be the equivalent of three billion tons of high explosive.
While the chances of the asteroid smashing into Earth are small, they remain significant and Professor Lauretta warned: “It may be destined to cause immense suffering and death."
The OSIRIS-REX spacecraft is scheduled to launch next month in a bid to map the asteroid and bring back rock samples.
It will arrive at Bennu in 2018 and will spend a year studying the asteroid, looking at its chemical composition, mineralogy and geology.
The probe will also take measurements of a force that can alter the orbit of asteroids and potentially put them on a collision course with the Earth.
Lauretta explained: "The Yarkovsky effect is the force that acts on an asteroid when it absorbs sunlight and then radiates it back into space as heat. It acts like a small thruster, constantly changing its course.”
He added: "Bennu's position has shifted 160km since 1999."
The spacecraft will also take rock samples from the asteroid and is due to return to Earth by 2023.
"The information it brings back on the size, mass and make-up of the Bennu could be vital data for future generations,” according to Lauretta.
Mark Bailey, emeritus director of the Armagh Observatory and an expert on impact risks, shared the concerns over the asteroid.
He said: “Bennu falls on the boundary, in terms of size, for an object capable of causing a global catastrophe.”