Space

NASA Will Pay Intimidating Asteroid Apophis a Visit

The asteroid-sampling Osiris-Rex mission will get a new name to reflect its new goals.

A stylish illustration shows Osiris-Apex firing its thrusters at the surface of asteroid Apophis.
Heather Roper

Stadium-size asteroid Apophis has been one of the most worrying space rocks on Earth's radar thanks to its size and the closeness of its future approaches to our planet. We're set to learn a lot more about it with NASA's announcement Monday that asteroid-booping spacecraft Osiris-Rex will pay it a visit. 

Osiris-Rex is already famous for its daredevil work in picking up a sample from asteroid Bennu in 2020. The spacecraft is on its way back home to drop off the sample for scientists to study. Once that task is done, it will gallivant off on an extended mission to Apophis.

Apophis is about 1,200 feet (roughly 370 meters) in diameter and will come within 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) of Earth in 2029. That will be a safe but close shave. NASA also ruled out any chance of the asteroid impacting the planet in 2068, which had been a cause for concern.

The spacecraft is one of eight planetary science missions to earn extensions from NASA. That group includes a handful of Mars missions, including the Curiosity rover and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.   

The Bennu sample delivery is scheduled for September 2023. The University of Arizona, which leads the mission, said in a statement on Monday that Osiris-Rex will "get up close and personal" with its future asteroid target around the time the space rock makes a very close approach to Earth in 2029. Osiris-Rex will get a new name -- Osiris-Apex for "Apophis Explorer" -- to reflect its new aim. 

Osiris-Apex won't collect a sample from Apophis, but it will snuggle up to it and fire its thrusters at the surface to expose the material below.  

Osiris-Apex might not be the only spacecraft hanging out at Apophis. South Korean scientists also hope to send a mission. The upcoming close approach represents a rare opportunity to get a good look at a potentially hazardous asteroid. The more we know, the better we can prepare for future dangers.