The earth is set to narrowly avoid an Armageddon scenario in January 2022 (image: Shutterstock)
Or even, from outer space.
And on Tuesday (18 January), another massive space rock 10 times the size of London’s Big Ben and almost three times bigger than the Empire State Building in New York City missed the earth by an astronomical whisker.
If you’ve just watched recently released Netflix film Don’t Look Up, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, this news might even have seemed a little too close to home.
(Graphic: Kim Mogg)
So is there any danger this latest big asteroid could wipe out humanity like the comet in Don’t Look Up – and what is being done to stop asteroids from hitting the earth?
Here’s what you need to know.
Will a massive asteroid hit earth in 2022?
The asteroid 7482 (1994 PC1) brushed past the earth on 18 January.
But a near-miss in astronomical terms wouldn’t be considered close at all by most people’s standards here on earth.
The space rock passed by at a distance of more than 1.2 million miles – or roughly five times the distance between the earth and the moon.
There are thousands of potentially deadly asteroids Nasa estimates it has not yet spotted (image: Shutterstock)
This is half the distance at which 4660 Nereus passed the earth in December – the last time a massive space rock ‘narrowly’ avoided a collision with our planet.
While that’s probably close enough for your liking, asteroid 7482 (1994 PC1) has come much closer to earth in the past.
In 1933, the asteroid shot by at a distance of just 700,000 miles.
How big is the asteroid?
At more than a kilometre in diameter (1,052m) and travelling at almost 44,000 miles per hour, the space rock has the potential to destroy life on earth.
4660 Nereus is set to come within 2.4 million miles of the earth on 11 December (image: Shutterstock)
It is also defined this way because it has and will approach the earth at less than half the distance from the earth to the sun – around 93 million miles.
This means any slight deviation in its orbit could put it on a collision course with us.
As things stand, asteroid 7482 (1994 PC1) is not predicted to come as close to the earth again until 18 January 2105.
Other space rocks are set to come even closer in the meantime, but other asteroids or comets could well come out of nowhere – just as the massive one in Don’t Look Up did.
While Nasa says there is no “significant chance” any of the more than 10,000 asteroids over 140m in size it has come across will hit the earth in the next 100 years, it’s estimated these figures account for just half of the potentially deadly objects out there.
In fact, there could be more than 25,000 near-earth objects in space, meaning we have recorded less than half of the killer asteroids out there.
What is Nasa doing to stop asteroids or comets hitting earth?
Work to save humanity from death by asteroid is still very much in its infancy.
And it only launched its first exploratory mission to see how easy it is to knock an asteroid off course in November 2021.
An artist’s impression of the Dart spacecraft (Image: NASA/PA)
The space agency’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (Dart) mission will see a spacecraft smash into a harmless Nasa-tracked asteroid in a bid to alter the space rock’s course.
If it succeeds, humanity might have discovered a way to keep itself safe from a future deadly impact.
But it is currently the only real-world experiment taking place in this field, so if it comes to nothing, we’ll still be just as vulnerable as we currently are.
What is an asteroid?
An asteroid is a rocky fragment left over from the formation of the solar system around 4.6 billion years ago.
Most of them orbit the sun between Mars and Jupiter in the asteroid belt.
Scientists estimate there are millions of space rocks in this part of space – some of which are hundreds of kilometres in size.
Sometimes, these asteroids change their orbits if they come under the influence of a planet’s gravity.
They can also collide with one another – incidents which can throw out smaller, but still hazardous, shards of rock.
One such stray rock – measuring just 20m in diameter – hit the earth in 2013 with up to 33-times the power of the atomic bomb the US dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in World War Two.
This blast took place over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk and blew out windows in more than 3,600 apartment blocks and injured 1,200 people.
A much larger stray asteroid as big as six miles wide is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.
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Boeing’s crew taxi returned to Earth from the International Space Station on Wednesday, completing a repeat test flight before NASA astronauts climb aboard.
It was a quick trip back: the Starliner capsule parachuted into the New Mexico desert just four hours after leaving the orbiting lab, with airbags attached to cushion the landing. Only a mannequin was buckled in.
Aside from thruster failures and cooling system snags, Starliner appeared to clinch its high-stakes shakedown cruise, 2½ years after its botched first try. Flight controllers in Houston applauded and cheered the bull’s-eye touchdown.
NASA astronauts will strap in next for a trip to the space station. The space agency has long wanted two competing U.S. companies ferrying astronauts, giving it added insurance as it drastically reduced its reliance on Russia for rides to and from the space station.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is already the established leader, launching astronauts since 2020 and even tourists. Its crew capsules splash down off the Florida coast; Boeing’s Starliner returns to the U.S. Army’s expansive White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Boeing scrapped its first attempt to reach the space station in 2019, after software errors left the capsule in the wrong orbit and nearly doomed it. The company fixed the flaws and tried again last summer, but corroded valves halted the countdown. Following more repairs, Starliner finally lifted off from Cape Canaveral last Thursday and docked to the space station Friday.
Station astronauts tested Starliner’s communication and computer systems during its five days at the space station. They also unloaded hundreds of kilograms of groceries and other supplies that flew up in the Boeing capsule, then filled it with empty air tanks and other discarded gear.
A folded U.S. flag sent up by Boeing stayed behind, to be retrieved by the first Starliner crew.
“We’re a little sad to see her go,” station astronaut Bob Hines radioed as the capsule flew away.
Along for the ride was Starliner’s test dummy — Rosie the Rocketeer, a takeoff on the Second World War’s Rosie the Riveter.
The repairs and do-over cost Boeing nearly $600 million US.
NASA’s InSight Mars lander has sent back its last selfie of its dust-covered solar panels and deck, in an image taken on its 1,211th ‘sol’ or Martian day of the mission on April 24.
Insight has been roaming the red planet for the past 3.5 years, capturing images and data that allowed scientists to approximate its crust and core, and refine models of how planets evolved from dust circling the Sun.
Insight’s scientific mission is set to conclude in summer after which it will run out of power. The lander is solar-powered, but dust covering the seven-feet wide solar panels has reduced its production capacity from around 5,000 watt-hours per sol to 500 watt-hours per sol. Once these panels generated power equivalent to running an electric oven for 40 minutes, they now can only power one for 10 minutes. The lander is equipped with two 25 amp-hour lithium-ion rechargeable batteries for energy storage.
With those constraints, even taking a selfie requires some calculation to stay within the spacecraft’s power budget. The selfie arm will now go into the “retirement pose”, according to NASA.
“The arm needs to move several times in order to capture a full selfie. Because InSight’s dusty solar panels are producing less power, the team will soon put the lander’s robotic arm in its resting position (called the “retirement pose”) for the last time in May of 2022,” NASA JPL said.
InSight launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 5, 2018 and landed on Mars on November 26, 2018, six minutes after hitting the the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph (19,800 kilometers per hour), according to NASA. It was the eighth landing on Mars in human history.
Dust has played a significant role in the InSight lander’s capability to continue the mission. An epic dust storm on Mars in 2018 is believed to have been behind the demise of NASA’s Opportunity rover. A similar storm could have threatened InSight’s mission, too. The threat from dust is two-fold: dust storms obscure available sunlight, while dust directly on the solar panels reduce their capacity to absorb sunlight.
Located on the dark side of Mars at the time, dust on the solar panels was already restricting their power output. NASA used Insight’s robotic arm to sprinkle sand near one solar panel, hoping wind gusts would make the granules sweep off some of the dust. The plan worked.
Then on January 7, 2022, InSight went into safe mode after a major dust storm obscured sunlight from its solar panels. But by that stage, performing the ‘sand sweep’ technique had become difficult because of reduced available energy. InSight’s engineers were hoping a whirlwind would clear dust from the panels and had restricted the use of science instruments. By February 15, the solar panels’ output levels had returned to pre-storm levels.
InSight’s onboard computers for command and data handling are derived from NASA’s 2014 Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and its 2011 Moon Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. The system has two redundant computers. Its core is a radiation-hardened 115.5 MHz CPU with a PowerPC 750 architecture called RAD 750 that was made by BAE Systems.
Its flight software is written in C and C++ on the VxWorks real-time operating system, which monitors the spacecraft’s health, checks for commands to execute, and handles communications and controls. It also checks commands for faults and handles corrective steps when it detects irregularities.
The new Boeing Starliner capsule was due to descend back to Earth on Wednesday from its first uncrewed journey to the International Space Station (ISS), completing a high-stakes test flight as NASA’s next vehicle for carrying humans to orbit.
Less than a week after its launch from the Cape Canaveral U.S. Space Force Base in Florida, the CST-100 Starliner was scheduled to autonomously undock from the space station at 2:36 p.m. EDT (1836 GMT) to embark on a five-hour-plus return flight.
If all goes as planned, the mission finale will come with the gumdrop-shaped craft making a fiery atmospheric re-entry followed by an airbag-cushioned parachute landing on the desert floor near White Sands, New Mexico at 6:49 p.m. PDT (2249 GMT).
Starliner was lofted to orbit last Thursday atop an Atlas V rocket furnished by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance and achieved its main objective, a rendezvous with the ISS, despite four of its multiple onboard thrusters malfunctioning along the way.
Boeing engineers also had to improvise a workaround for a thermal control defect during the final approach of the capsule to the space station, orbiting some 270 miles (430 kilometers) above Earth.
But NASA and Boeing officials said none of the problems encountered so far should preclude Starliner from safely returning, and they chalked up such snafus to the learning process of developing a new spacecraft.
A successful mission would move the Starliner, beset by repeated delays and costly engineering setbacks, a major step closer to providing NASA with a second reliable avenue for ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.
Since resuming crewed flights to orbit from American soil in 2020, nine years after the space shuttle program ended, the U.S. space agency has had to rely solely on Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules from billionaire Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX.
Previously the only other option for reaching the orbiting laboratory was by hitching rides aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, an alternative currently less attractive in light of heightened U.S.-Russian tensions over the war in Ukraine.
Much is also on the line for Boeing, as the Chicago-based company scrambles to climb out of successive crises in its jetliner business and space-defense unit. The Starliner program alone has cost the company nearly $600 million over the past 2 1/2 years.
An ill-fated first orbital test flight of Starliner in late 2019 nearly ended with the vehicle’s loss following a software glitch that effectively foiled the spacecraft’s ability to reach the space station.
Subsequent problems with Starliner’s propulsion system, supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, led Boeing to scrub a second attempt to launch the capsule last summer.
Starliner remained grounded for nine more months while the two companies sparred over what caused fuel valves to stick shut and which firm was responsible for fixing them.
The do-over test mission winding up on Wednesday could pave the way for Starliner to fly its first astronaut crew to the space station as early as the fall, NASA has said.
The orbiting outpost is currently home to a crew of three U.S. NASA astronauts, an Italian astronaut from the European Space Agency and three Russian cosmonauts. (Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bradley Perrett)
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