NASA’s OSIRIS-REx is on its way back to Earth to deliver its precious cargo, soil from asteroid Bennu. But after the spacecraft delivers the capsule, it has a new mission: Exploring asteroid Apophis, a hazardous Near-Earth Object.
Apophis has been in the news since its discovery because orbital estimations back in 2004 suggested that it might impact Earth. We now know that we are safe from it for at least a century, and given its occasional close proximity to our planet, it’s an interesting object to study.
The mission has also got a new name, going from OSIRIS-REx to OSIRIS-APEX. The current team will be split, with some members focusing on sample analysis and others working on the new mission. The sample return will continue to be led by current principal investigator Dante Lauretta, while the mission deputy Dani DellaGiustina, will become the principal investigator of OSIRIS-APEX
"Apophis is one of the most infamous asteroids," DellaGiustina said in a statement.
"When it was first discovered in 2004, there was concern that it would impact the Earth in 2029 during its close approach. That risk was retired after subsequent observations, but it will be the closest an asteroid of this size has gotten in the 50 or so years asteroids have been closely tracked, or for the next 100 years of asteroids we have discovered so far. It gets within one-tenth the distance between the Earth and moon during the 2029 encounter. People in Europe and Africa will be able to see it with the naked eye, that's how close it will get. We were stoked to find out the mission was extended."
The first-course correction maneuver will happen in October 2023, about a month after dropping off its sample. The spacecraft will slowly orbit around the Sun for a few years before its rendezvous with Apophis on April 21, 2029, just a week or so after the asteroid passes close to Earth. It will study the asteroid for 18 months.
"OSIRIS-APEX is a manifestation of a core objective of our mission to enable the next generation of leadership in space exploration. I couldn't be prouder of Dani and the APEX team," Lauretta said. "Dani first started working with us in 2005 as an undergraduate student. To see her take on the leadership of the mission to asteroid Apophis demonstrates the outstanding educational opportunities at the University of Arizona."
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx is a mission of records. The spacecraft broke the record for the smallest object ever orbited by a spacecraft, as well as getting the record for the closest orbit, reaching just 690 meters (2,264 feet) from the asteroid's center.