Asteroid the size of the Eiffel Tower heads for Earth in December

A large asteroid about 330 meters long is heading for Earth in early December, according to NASA’s asteroid tracker.

Nicknamed 4660 Nereus, or 1982 DB, this vaguely egg-shaped asteroid is taller than the Eiffel Tower and almost twice as tall as the Washington Monument. It is scheduled to pass the planet on December 11 at a distance of approximately 3.9 million kilometers and at a speed of 6.578 km / s. For comparison, the distance between the Earth and the Moon is about 385,000 kilometers. As such, despite being classified as a Potentially Dangerous Asteroid (PHA) due to its size and proximity to Earth, it seems unlikely that it poses a threat to the planet.

This is fortunate, as an impact from an asteroid of this size could be devastating.

But what makes Nereus stand out among other asteroids is not its size or the possibility of it causing a planetary impact, but its exploration potential.

As an Apollo-class asteroid, Nereus’ orbit frequently places it close to Earth. In fact, its orbital resonance is about 2: 1. This means that a mission to explore the asteroid is very feasible.

Illustrative asteroid (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists have given a hypothetical exploration mission at Nereus a delta-v (a measure of various values ​​and factors that determine how difficult it would be to properly maneuver a spacecraft during takeoff and / or landing) of about 5 km / s. This is significant, since the Moon’s delta-v is around 6 km / s. In fact, in 2000, NASA classified Nereus as one of the lowest delta-v values of near-Earth objects.

As delta-v can be used as a kind of budget when determining how much force and propellant is needed for a mission, a lower delta-v value when cold indicates a cheaper and easier mission, as it could mean being you need less.

No mission is currently known to be ready to explore Nereus, however it has been considered before. Both NASA’s robotic Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous-Shoemaker (NEAR) mission and Japan’s Hayabusa mission saw Nereus as targets, but both ultimately chose other options.

Nonetheless, it remains an attractive target for many.

The asteroid is expected to return 12 more times in the next few decades, but its closest approach is scheduled for February 14, 2060, when it will be less than 1.2 million kilometers away.

According to NASA, if a mission were to be launched this year, it would take between 426-146 days, although the delta-v this time would be around 10.37 km / s, slightly higher than launching a rocket into low orbit.

Asteroid exploration is an important field in astronomy and many space agencies have expressed interest in exploring the many large objects in the solar system.

In October, the United Arab Emirates announced plans for a new mission to explore asteroids and be the first Arab nation to successfully land a spacecraft on an asteroid.

Tentatively scheduled to launch in 2028 with a seven-year development time for the spacecraft, the mission will see the UAE explore the planet Venus, as well as seven asteroids, culminating in a planned asteroid landing in 2033 after five years. trip.

Three nations have landed on asteroids in the past, and many see them as potential sources for future mining operations, as these asteroids can be rich in raw materials.

In fact, Nereus is no exception, as its spectral type indicates that it probably contains cobalt, nickel, and iron.

However, regardless of the potential, many are also rightly concerned about the dangers of near-Earth asteroids, as the impacts can be devastating and humanity currently lacks the adequate means to defend against them.

One method of possibly stopping an asteroid impact is by using deflection, which would mean launching something to slightly alter an asteroid’s trajectory.

In simple terms, it means hitting an asteroid with a rocket with enough speed to change its direction by a fraction of a percentage.

However, other measures have also been considered, such as disruption, that is, the destruction of the asteroid, but at this time they remain hypothetical.

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