The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s jets hadn’t even cooled before NASA sent it off on a new journey.
That’s right, it’s now on its way to study the ‘God of Destruction’ asteroid, Apophis.
It’ll take a while to reach it, though, with the spacecraft’s arrival expected in April 2029.
Because of its potential threat to Earth, the asteroid was named after the ancient Egyptian evil serpent deity who sought to swallow the Sun and destroy the world.
When the asteroid was first observed, there appeared to be several times in the near future when it might impact Earth.
However, more detail on its orbit has enabled astronomers to rule out a collision in the next century, but there’s no guarantee beyond that.
So, unless we do something to intervene, chances are that Apophis will hit Earth eventually.
The only real alternative is a close passage moving it to an entirely different orbit, but even this will only lengthen its orbit by 100 days, still allowing many more encounters with Earth.
Although the asteroid isn’t large enough to be a mass extinction-causing “dinosaur killer’, you wouldn’t want to be where it hit, or possibly even on the same continent.
That’s why knowing more about it could be crucial when the time comes to give it a nudge.
That’s the reason behind OSIRIS-APEX, as the mission’s now known, which will observe Apophis as it passes just 32,000 kilometers (20,000 miles) from Earth.
If you’re lucky in the right place, you might even be able to catch a glimpse of its passage, which will be visible to the naked eye even under moderate light pollution.
It’s believed asteroids this big pass so close only once every 7,500 years.
Not only that, but Earth’s much larger gravity could unleash effects on Apophis like those in an over-the-top disaster movie, and OSIRIS-APEX will have the best seat in the house to watch the whole thing.
“OSIRIS-APEX will study Apophis immediately after such a pass, allowing us to see how its surface changes by interacting with Earth’s gravity,” said Dr Amy Simon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in a statement.
What’s more, passing that close to an object as big as Earth could change the length of Apophis’ day – currently 30.6 hours.
NASA also thinks it could set off the Apophis-quakes that could uncover material currently hiiden inside the asteroid.
But unlike the previous mission where the spacecraft gathered a sample of asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-APEX won’t be collecting a sample, but it’ll do the next best thing.
Plans are to get the spacecraft within five meters (16 feet) of the surface and firing its thrusters to see how how much dust gets blown off.
In other news, a trailblazing spacecraft reached the Moon at Christmas and send back a special gift, while NASA’s car-sized rover made a startling discovery on Mars.