UT professor studying asteroid that could impact Earth

UT professor studying asteroid that could impact Earth

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OSIRIS-REx vehicle (Source: NASA/University of Arizona) OSIRIS-REx vehicle (Source: NASA/University of Arizona)

By GENE PATTERSON
6 News Anchor/Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - A group of scientists, including a University of Tennessee planetary science professor, are planning a 2016 mission to study an asteroid that could one day impact Earth.

Four years from now, the NASA-funded flight called the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer or OSIRIS-REx Mission will launch from Earth, heading for an asteroid called 1999 RQ36.

Scientists will send an unmanned vehicle to the asteroid after a two-year trip through space. Then, from an orbit around the celestial body, the vehicle will study it for a year.

Eventually it will descend to the surface, coming within feet of an actual landing, to collect samples through a specialized device.

Dr. Joshua Emery, a professor of planetary sciences at UT, knows the asteroid well.  He's on the OSIRIS-REx team and is studying the thermal properties of the asteroid.

"It turns out that this asteroid gets very hot. It'll get up to 150 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit," said Emery.

The mission is important to humans here on Earth for several reasons.

First, it could help us better understand the origins of life on our planet.

The asteroid holds water and organic materials, which makes the mission a big opportunity.

"There are two questions about life on Earth: Where did water come from? And where did the building blocks for life come from originally?" said Emery.  "It's possible they were brought to Earth from asteroids like this."

Second, out of all the celestial bodies in the solar system, this asteroid has the best chance of striking Earth and perhaps destroying it.

But before you start stocking up on survival supplies, Emery said the odds of a collision are remote, about one in 1,000. Furthermore, if it did hit the Earth, it wouldn't do so until 2182.

Still it is a possibility and a serious one.

"It's about 500 meters in diameter," said Emery. "That's about five football fields."

That's big enough to cause massive, if not extinction-level, damage.  That's why it's fortunate that scientists have 170 years to prepare for such a scenario.

In the meantime, kids and teens under the age of 18 can enter a contest to give the asteroid a new moniker. The deadline to enter is December 2. If you or someone you know has an idea for a new name for 1999 RQ36, just visit this website to submit your suggestion.

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