Asteroids are the small rocky bodies in the inner Solar System orbiting the Sun. There are millions of them flying around space and their collisions – known as impact events – have played a significant role in shaping many planets. NASA is constantly watching the cosmos, categorising any Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) as Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHO) if they could pose a threat to life on Earth.
However, Dr Natalie Starkey warned during her 2018 book “Catching Stardust” that a surprise space rock could catch the space agency off guard, claiming we should be prepared for the end of the world in the distant future.
She wrote last year: “Should asteroids be feared or revered? Well, my answer probably won’t surprise you and it is, of course, that they should be revered.
“It is certainly possible that human existence on our planet may one day end because of a huge Earth-shattering impact, but we must remember that life might have only began in the first place because of very similar impacts early in Earth history.
“Whether the ingredients for life were delivered to Earth from space on a comet or asteroid is, as yet unknown, but the evidence points towards this being the most likely option.
“However, even if comet and asteroid impacts weren’t responsible for seeding the Earth with the ingredients for life, then their role in events such as the mass extinction 65 million years ago could be just one example of how they helped create an environment that allowed life like ours to develop.”
Despite this, Dr Starkey does not think we should fear asteroid, after all, they have been pivotal for Earth.
She added: “The end of the dinosaurs, and many other species, meant that niches were opened up for a range of mammals in different shapes and sizes to find a comfortable place on Earth, in a landscape that was suddenly free from competitors.
“This includes the mammals from which we are descended.
“What we can be certain of is that impacts from space have had an important role to play in the development of our planet, even the formation of the Moon.
“How, and if, they will play a role in our future is yet to be seen, but we are, party, in control of that.”
Asteroid 101955 Bennu, formally known as 1999 RQ36, is a potentially hazardous object listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale.
Investigators have already warned the space agency that it could be devastating if they do not act.
According to a study by scientist Maria Eugenia Sansaturio, the 1999 asteroid may impact the Earth.
Dr Sansaturio warned in a report for the Solar System journal Icarus that there is a good chance of the asteroid striking.
She told Universe Today in 2010: “The total impact probability of asteroid 1999 RQ36 can be estimated as 0.00092, approximately one-in-a-thousand chance, but what is most surprising is that over half of this chance (0.00054) corresponds to 2182.”
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However, NASA has a less destructive move for Bennu.
The space agency is currently running a mission with its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to find out more about the rock.
The spacecraft spent two years chasing Bennu down, before orbiting it for another two years and taking samples.
Then, in 2023, it will blast back to Earth to allow scientists from around the world to study it.
The mission team is particularly interested in learning the role that asteroids like Bennu – dark, primitive and apparently carbon-rich – may have played in creating life on Earth.
It will also help scientists to refine the odds of a strike on Earth.