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A monster asteroid twice the size of The Shard is heading for Earth – Metro.co.uk

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A view of an asteroid and Planet Earth shining tiny and vulnerable in the bleak blackness of space (Image: ESA)

A gigantic asteroid is coming our way and will zoom terrifyingly close to Earth on September 14.

The monster space rock is called 2000 QW7 and is thought to be up to 650 metres wide.

This means it could be more than twice as big as The Shard in London Bridge, which is about 310 metres tall.

Happily, the object will zoom past at a distance of about five million miles from Earth at a speed of more than 23,000 kilometres per hour.

The last time it came past Earth was in 2000 and we’ll see it again in 2038.

Elon Musk recently warned that Earth has ‘no defence’ against gigantic asteroids.

A doomsday space rock could wipe out millions or even cause the extinction of humanity (Provider: Getty)

A doomsday space rock could wipe out millions or even cause the extinction of humanity (Provider: Getty)

The billionaire issued this chilling assessment of our planetary defence capabilities after his friend Joe Rogan shared a story from a British newspaper which discussed how Nasa is preparing for the arrival of a space rock named after an Egyptian ‘God of Chaos’ called Apophis.

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Musk tweeted: ‘Great name! Wouldn’t worry about this particular one, but a big rock will hit Earth eventually & we currently have no defence.’

The 340-metre wide behemoth is on a path which brings it within such a short distance of our planet’s surface that Nasa once feared it was going to hit us.

Luckily, subsequent calculations showed the object was going to miss us and pass within just 19,000 miles of our planet’s surface – a hair’s breadth in cosmic terms.

‘The Apophis close approach in 2029 will be an incredible opportunity for science,’ said Marina Brozović, a radar scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who works on radar observations of near-Earth objects (NEOs).

‘We’ll observe the asteroid with both optical and radar telescopes. With radar observations, we might be able to see surface details that are only a few meters in size.’

Asteroid approaching Earth. Computer artwork of an asteroid entering Earth's atmosphere.

The space rock which will buzz Earth is big enough to destroy a city (Photo: Getty)

If Apophis did hit a city like London, it would wipe out millions of people and create a crater roughly three miles wide, but our species would probably survive.

It’s only when space rocks are half a mile wide or larger that they start to pose an existential threat to humanity because larger objects could throw so much dust and debris into the air that sunlight is blocked so plants across the planet can no longer grow.

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In a piece of cosmic irony, Apophis will fly past on Friday, April 13, 2029.

Astronomers around the world will train their telescopes on the asteroid.

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The asteroid was discussed at Nasa’s annual Planetary Defence Conference this week, where scientists and disaster planners also simulated an asteroid apocalypse in order to practice their emergency response. 

‘Apophis is a representative of about 2,000 currently known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs),” said Paul Chodas, director of Nasa’s Centre for Near Earth Objects Studies (CNEOS).

‘By observing Apophis during its 2029 flyby, we will gain important scientific knowledge that could one day be used for planetary defence.’



Nasa’s guide to viewing Apophis

‘On April 13, 2029, a speck of light will streak across the sky getting brighter and faster. At one point it will travel more than the width of the full Moon within a minute and it will get as bright as the stars in the Little Dipper. But it won’t be a satellite or an airplane—it will be a 340-meter-wide near-Earth asteroid called 99942 Apophis that will cruise harmlessly by Earth, about 19,000 miles (31,000 km) above the surface. That’s within the distance that some of our spacecraft that orbit Earth.

‘It’s rare for an asteroid of this size to pass by the Earth so close. Although scientists have spotted small asteroids, on the order of 5-10 meters, flying by Earth at a similar distance, asteroids the size of Apophis are far fewer in number and so do not pass this close to Earth as often.

‘The asteroid, looking like a moving star-like point of light, will first become visible to the naked eye in the night sky over the southern hemisphere, flying above Earth from the east coast to the west coast of Australia. It will be mid-morning on the East Coast of the United States when Apophis is above Australia. It will then cross the Indian Ocean, and by the afternoon in the eastern U.S. it will have crossed the equator, still moving west, above Africa. At closest approach, just before 6 p.m. EDT, Apophis will be over the Atlantic Ocean – and it will move so fast that it will cross the Atlantic in just an hour. By 7 p.m. EDT, the asteroid will have crossed over the United States.’

Several views of Apophis released in 2013 (Image: Nasa)

Several views of Apophis released in 2013 (Image: Nasa)

In 2013, Nasa calculated that Apophis would not hit Earth.

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‘We have effectively ruled out the possibility of an Earth impact by Apophis in 2036,’ said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL.

‘The impact odds as they stand now are less than one in a million, which makes us comfortable saying we can effectively rule out an Earth impact in 2036. Our interest in asteroid Apophis will essentially be for its scientific interest for the foreseeable future.’

However, it said the ‘April 13, 2029, flyby of asteroid Apophis will be one for the record books’ because of how close the object will come to our planet.

A view of the asteroid as it travelled past Earth (Image: ESA)

A view of the asteroid as it travelled past Earth (Image: ESA)

Last month an asteroid big enough to kill millions zoomed past the planet just a few days after it was spotted.

If it had been on a collision course with Earth, we could have done little to protect ourselves and would have had to watch helplessly as the space rock ploughed into our homeworld.

After this flyby, the European Space Agency issued an urgent call for more ‘eyes on the sky’ to make sure we don’t get caught by ‘surprise’ again.

On July 25, astronomers watched as a 100-metre wide object called 2019 OK came within 65 000 km of our planet’s surface – which  is roughly one-fifth of the distance to the Moon.

The rock had actually been ‘previously been observed but wasn’t recognised as a near-Earth asteroid,’ ESA admitted.

Now it’s hoping to learn from this mistake and make sure every asteroid heading our way is located and identified well ahead of time.

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‘This ‘un-recognition’ of an asteroid, despite it being photographed will be used to test the software going into ESA’s upcoming asteroid-hunting telescope, the Flyeye,’ said Rüdiger Jehn, ESA’s Head of Planetary Defence.

Asteroid approaching Earth. Computer artwork of an asteroid entering Earth's atmosphere.

The asteroid will skim Earth by 4.6 million miles next week (Science Photo Library RF)

Nasa will be sure to keep a close eye on Asteroid 2006 QQ23, which is set to pass by Earth on August 10.

The massive rock, which has been estimated at 570m in diameter and bigger than New York’s Empire State Building, has been classified as a ‘near-Earth object’ (NEO).

It will make its closest approach to Earth at a distance of 4.6 million miles at some time just after 3am.

The asteroid was discovered over a decade ago in 2006, which gives it part of its designated title.

The American space agency says there’s no danger of the wayward rock hitting us, which is a very good thing. Even though the asteroid isn’t a big as some out there, it’s large enough to create widespread devastation if it impacted on Earth.

A land impact could obliterate an entire city while a plunge into the ocean could cause tsunamis that impact low-lying land.

In either scenario, the asteroid would change the climate for many years.

The path of Asteroid 2006 QV89 can be seen alongside the planets' orbit in this graphic (Image: ESA)

The path of Asteroid 2006 QV89 can be seen alongside the planets’ orbit in this graphic (Image: ESA)

Nasa estimates it has already found over 90 percent of near-Earth objects measuring one kilometre or larger – which would have catastrophic global effects in the event of a collision.

But, smaller space rocks are much harder to detect.

The space agency has been working to pinpoint NEOs in the 140-meter range, with a goal of identifying at least 90 percent of these objects.

The asteroid is larger than New York's Empire State Building (Rob Loud/Getty Images for Gotham Organization)

The asteroid is larger than New York’s Empire State Building (Rob Loud/Getty Images for Gotham Organization)

According to Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) manager Paul Chodas there are very few asteroids identified by NASA that have a chance of hitting Earth, one of which, Bennu, is the subject of frequent monitoring by the agency.

Bennu is as wide as five football fields and weighs around 79 billion kilograms, which is 1,664 times heavier than the Titanic.

It has a 1 in 2,700-chance of striking Earth between 2175 and 2199 – which is really very small, so there’s no need to worry unduly for your great, great grandchildren’s safety.

Luckily for us, Elon Musk has already joined forces with Nasa to help defend our planet against doomsday space rocks. 

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SpaceX's Next Starship Prototype Taking Shape (Photos) – Space.com

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SpaceX’s next Starship prototype won’t be just a concept vehicle for much longer.

Construction of the test craft is proceeding apace, as two new photos posted on Twitter today (Sept. 17) by company founder and CEO Elon Musk reveal. 

One of the images shows the vehicle — apparently Starship Mk1, which is being assembled at SpaceX’s South Texas facility, near the village of Boca Chica — in the background, standing behind a building that contains a variety of parts and other equipment. (SpaceX is also building a similar prototype, called Starship Mk2, at the company’s Florida facilities, reasoning that a little intracompany competition will improve the vehicle’s final design.)

Related: SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy Mars Rocket in Pictures

“Droid Junkyard, Tatooine,” Musk said via Twitter, referring to Luke Skywalker’s home planet in the “Star Wars” movies. 

The other photo is a close-up view of a ring-shaped section being lowered onto the Mk1’s body. The billionaire entrepreneur had a joky caption for this one as well: “Area 51 of Area 51.”

The Mk1 and Mk2 follow in the footsteps of SpaceX’s Starhopper vehicle, which was retired after acing a big test flight last month. But the new vehicles are far more ambitious and more capable. Whereas Starhopper sported just a single Raptor engine and stayed within a few hundred feet of the ground, for example, the Mk1 and Mk2 will be powered by at least three Raptors and will go much higher.

SpaceX is aiming for a test flight that gets 12 miles (20 kilometers) up in October, followed by an orbital attempt “shortly thereafter,” Musk said late last month.

All of these steps are leading toward the final Starship, SpaceX’s planned Mars-colonizing craft. That Starship will be capable of carrying 100 passengers and will launch atop a huge rocket called the Super Heavy. Both of the elements, rocket and spaceship, will be fully and rapidly reusable, Musk has said.

The final Starship, as currently envisioned, will sport six Raptors, while the Super Heavy will be powered by 35 of the engines. Those numbers could change, however; Musk is scheduled to give a Starship design update on Sept. 28 from the South Texas site.

The Mk1 should be fully assembled by that time, he has said.

The Mk1 and Mk2 test campaigns won’t be terribly lengthy, if SpaceX’s planned schedules hold. Company representatives have said that the first operational flights of Starship, which are likely to be commercial satellite launches, could come as early as 2021. (Eventually, SpaceX plans to use Starship for all the company’s spaceflight needs, from interplanetary colonization missions to satellite launches to point-to-point trips around Earth.)

And SpaceX is targeting 2023 for a crewed mission of the vehicle: a flight around the moon booked by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa.

Mike Wall’s book about the search for alien life, “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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Could We Intercept Interstellar Comet C/2019 Q4 Borisov? – Universe Today

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When ‘Oumuamua passed through our Solar System two years ago, it set off a flurry of excitement in the astronomical community. Here was the first-ever interstellar object that be observed by human trackers, and the mysteries surrounding its true nature and composition led to some pretty interesting theories. There were even some proposals for a rapid mission that would be able to rendezvous with it.

And now that a second interstellar object – C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) – has been detected traveling through the Solar System, similar proposals are being made. One of them comes from a group of scientists from the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is) in the UK. In a recent study, they assess the technical feasibility of sending a mission to this interstellar comet using existing technology, and found that there were a few options!

In many ways, C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) represents an opportunity to conduct the kinds of research that were not possible with ‘Oumuamua. When that mystery object was first observed, it had already made its closest pass to the Sun, past Earth, and was on its way out of the Solar System. Nevertheless, what we were able to learn about ‘Oumuamua led to the conclusion that it was an entirely new class of celestial object.

Artist’s impression of the first interstellar asteroid/comet, “Oumuamua”. This unique object was discovered on Oct. 19th, 2017, by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

In addition to those who ventured that it was either a comet or an asteroid, there were also those who theorized that ‘Oumuamua could be a fragment from a comet that exploded when passing close to our Sun, or even an extra-terrestrial solar sail. Another interesting find was the fact that similar objects likely pass through our Solar System on a regular basis (many of which stay).

For these reasons, a mission that could study such objects up close is very desirable. As Dr. Andreas M. Hein – the executive director of i4is’s board of directors, the chairman of its Technical Research Committee, and one of the co-authors on the recent study – told Universe Today via email:

“Investigating interstellar objects from a close distance would provide us with unique data about other star systems without actually flying to them. They might provide unique insights into the evolution and composition of other star systems and exoplanets in them. Interstellar objects are cool as it’s a bit like: If you can’t go to the mountain, let the mountain come to you. It will likely take many decades until we can send a spacecraft to another star. Hence, interstellar objects might be an intermediate solution for finding out more about other stars and their planets.”

What’s more, he claims, these objects have probably been travelling between star system for hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of years. As a result, they undoubtedly picked up material along the way or bear the marks of encounters with other objects or forces. In short, their composition and surface features can tell us a great deal about what is out there in the interstellar medium.

Artist’s illustration of a light-sail powered by lasers generated on the surface of a planet. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

This is not the first time that i4is has proposed sending a spacecraft to rendezvous with an interstellar object. In 2017, Dr. Hein and several colleagues from i4is (who also co-authored this study) produced a paper titled “Project Lyra: Sending a Spacecraft to 1I/’Oumuamua (former A/2017 U1), the Interstellar Asteroid“, which was conducted with the help of the asteroid-prospecting company Asteroid Initiatives LLC.

The project was so-named because of ‘Oumuamua’s origins, which astronomers concluded came from the general direction of Vega – the brightest star in the northern constellation of Lyra. After taking into account the speed with which ‘Oumuamua was leaving the Solar System at the time – 26 km/s (93,600 km/h; 58,160 mph) – they determined that any proposal would be a trade-off between three factors.

These included when a mission could launch, the velocity it could achieve, and the time it would take to rendezvous with the object. Under the circumstances, they felt that the best option was to wait for future technological breakthroughs – such as those being pursued by Breakthrough Starshot (a concept for a laser-driven interstellar solar sail).

These conclusions have proven very applicable, thanks to the detection of a second interstellar object passing through our Solar System in as many years. In their most recent study, the research team once again used Optimum Interplanetary Trajectory Software (OITS) – which was developed by team-member Adam Hibberd – to assess all available options for sending a spacecraft to rendezvous with an interstellar object.

The Falcon Heavy's first flight. Each time the Heavy lifts off, it uses roughly 440 tons of fuel. Image: SpaceX
The Falcon Heavy’s first flight. Each time the Heavy lifts off, it uses roughly 440 tons of fuel. Image: SpaceX

These included the optimal launch vehicle (like NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) or SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy) the optimal trajectory for the mission, and the best type of spacecraft. In the end, they determined that humanity has the capability of rendezvousing with an interstellar object using existing technology and came up with a mission architecture that could make that happen.

This mission would rely on a heavy-launch vehicle and could alternately employ a 2 ton (1.8 metric ton) or a 3 kg (6.6 lbs) CubeSat spacecraft. Depending on when it launched and what its preferred trajectory would be, it might also need to conduct a Jupiter flyby and Solar Oberth maneuver to catch up with C/2019 Q4 (Borisov). As Dr. Hein explained:

“Our results show that for both, ‘Oumuamua and C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), we already have the technology to visit these objects. Regarding ‘Oumuamua, we can launch a spacecraft towards it even beyond the year 2030. There is plenty of time to develop such a spacecraft. The case for C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) is a bit more tricky, as it is faster than ‘Oumuamua. But even for this object, we could have sent a two-ton spacecraft to it with a Falcon Heavy, if we would have launched it in 2018.”

“Later missions are also possible, but require a bigger launcher. Future telescopes will be able to detect such objects much earlier and with adequate preparation, we can send a spacecraft on an encounter mission. So we have the technology to do this and with the discovery of C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), we also know that we probably have plenty of opportunities to fly to such an object.”

Artist’s impression of the interstellar object, `Oumuamua, experiencing outgassing as it leaves our Solar System. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

Once again, the presence of an interstellar object in our Solar System is a major source of excitement. In addition to all the opportunities to learn from them, C/2019 Q4 and ‘Oumuamua are encouraging because of the implication their presence has. Not only do they confirm that objects from distant stars pass through our System pretty regularly; they also show that we are at a point where we can detect, track and study them.

But knowing that in the future, we will be able to study them up close is especially exciting! In fact, the ESA is currently working on a mission that could very be the one to rendezvous with a future interstellar object. It’s known as the Comet Interceptor, a “fast-class” concept consisting of three spacecraft that will wait in space until a pristine comet appears, rapidly catch up with it!

“We imagine two types of research,” Dr. Hein said. “First, remote-sensing, for example with a telescope taking pictures. Second, we can analyze material from the object directly by shooting an impactor into it and catching some of the particles from the dust plume which is generated with the main spacecraft. This would provide unique insights into the composition of the object.”

As for what this research could reveal, Dr. Hein has some thoughts on that too: “I can only speculate but we might see evidence that organic molecules, the building blocks for life, actually travel between star systems and who knows, maybe life itself might actually spread between stars in our galaxy.”

Further Reading: arXiv

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Physicists at MIT Shave Estimate of Mass of Neutrino “Ghost Particle” in Half – SciTechDaily

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KATRIN’s spectrometer, shown here, precisely measures the energy of electrons emitted in the decay of tritium, which has helped scientists come closer to pinning down the mass of the ghost-like neutrino. Credit: The KATRIN Collaboration

Joseph Formaggio explains the discovery that the ghostly particle must be no more than 1 electronvolt, half as massive as previously thought.

An international team of scientists, including researchers at MIT, has come closer to pinning down the mass of the elusive neutrino. These ghost-like particles permeate the universe and yet are thought to be nearly massless, streaming by the millions through our bodies while leaving barely any physical trace.

The researchers have determined that the mass of the neutrino should be no more than 1 electron volt. Scientists previously estimated the upper limit of the neutrino’s mass to be around 2 electron volts, so this new estimate shaves down the neutrino’s mass range by more than half.

The new estimate was determined based on data taken by KATRIN, the Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino Experiment, at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, and reported at the 2019 Conference on Astroparticle and Underground Physics last week. The experiment triggers tritium gas to decay, which in turn releases neutrinos, along with electrons. While the neutrinos are quick to dissipate, KATRIN’s sequence of magnets directs tritium’s electrons into the heart of the experiment — a giant 200-ton spectrometer, where the electrons’ mass and energy can be measured, and from there, researchers can calculate the mass of the corresponding neutrinos.

Joseph Formaggio, professor of physics at MIT, is a leading member of the KATRIN experimental group, and spoke with MIT News about the new estimate and the road ahead in the neutrino search.

Q: The neutrino, based on KATRIN’s findings, can’t be more massive than 1 electron volt. Put this context for us: How light is this, and how big a deal is it that the neutrino’s maximum mass could be half of what people previously thought?

A: Well, that’s somewhat of a difficult question, since people (myself included) don’t really have an intuitive sense of what the mass is of any particle, but let’s try. Consider something very small, like a virus. Each virus is made up of roughly 10 million protons. Each proton weighs about 2,000 times more than each electron inside that virus. And what our results showed is that the neutrino has a mass less than 1/ 500,000 of a single electron!

Let me put it another way. In each cubic centimeter of space around you, there are about 300 neutrinos zipping through. These are remnants of the early universe, just after the Big Bang. If you added up all the neutrinos residing inside the sun, you’d get about a kilogram or less. So, yeah, it’s small.

Q: What went into determining this new mass limit for the neutrino, and what was MIT’s role in the search?

A: This new mass limit comes from studying the radioactive decay of tritium, an isotope of hydrogen. When tritium decays, it produces a helium-3 ion, an electron, and an antineutrino. We actually never see the antineutrino, however; the electron carries information about the neutrino’s mass. By studying the energy distribution of the electrons ejected at the highest energies allowed, we can deduce the mass of the neutrino, thanks to Einstein’s equation, E=mc2.

However, studying those high-energy electrons is very difficult. For one thing, all the information about the neutrino is embedded in a tiny fraction of the spectrum — less than 1 billionth of decays are of use for this measurement. So, we need a lot of tritium inventory. We also need to measure the energy of those electrons very, very precisely. This is why the KATRIN experiment is so tricky to build. Our very first measurement presented today is the culmination of almost two decades of hard work and planning.

MIT joined the KATRIN experiment when I came to Boston in 2005. Our group helped develop the simulation tools to understand the response of our detector to high precision. More recently, we have been involved in developing tools to analyze the data collected by the experiment.

Q: Why does the mass of a neutrino matter, and what will it take to zero in on its exact mass?

A: The fact that neutrinos have any mass at all was a surprise to many physicists. Our earlier models predicted that the neutrino should have exactly zero mass, an assumption dispelled by the discovery that neutrinos oscillate between different types. That means we do not really understand the mechanism responsible for neutrino masses, and it is likely to be very different than how other particles attain mass. Also, our universe is filled with primordial neutrinos from the Big Bang. Even a tiny mass has a significant impact on the structure and evolution of the universe because they are so aplenty.

This measurement represents just the beginning of KATRIN’s measurement. With just about one month of data, we were able to improve previous experimental limits by a factor of two. Over the next few years, these limits will steadily improve, hopefully resulting in a positive signal (rather than just a limit). There are also a number of other direct neutrino mass experiments on the horizon that are also competing to reach greater sensitivity, and with it, discovery!

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