When we talk about guests from space, it’s usually an exciting prospect. Scientists land rovers on Mars or peer into telescopes to study distant galaxies. But what if one of these celestial objects decided to pay us an unscheduled visit, carrying the destructive power of 22 atomic bombs? Enter Asteroid Bennu—a space rock that might one day have Earth in its travel itinerary.

A date often murmured in hushed conversations among astronomers is September 24, 2182. This date signifies the closest predicted encounter between Earth and Bennu, according to NASA. But how did we arrive at this specific prediction? NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, which visited Bennu, wasn’t just a trip to gather some space souvenirs. It was a calculated mission to learn more about Bennu’s composition and orbit, arming us with invaluable data to assess the real risks the asteroid presents.

Before OSIRIS-REx’s close inspection, the likelihood of Bennu colliding with Earth was estimated to be around 1 in 2,700 between the years 2175 and 2199. After two years of intense observation, however, the odds have shifted slightly—now standing at about 1 in 1,750 by the year 2300.

Bennu measures about 500 meters across—roughly equivalent to five football fields end-to-end. If this space rock were to make landfall, it would unleash around 1,200 megatons of energy. To put that in perspective, that’s 24 times the energy of the most potent nuclear bomb ever created by humans. While not enough to replicate the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs, it would still be a catastrophic day for humanity.

So, what makes Bennu’s orbit so concerning? Scientists from the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies have conducted advanced modeling techniques that allow them to predict Bennu’s path with unprecedented precision until the year 2135. Beyond that, however, there are many variables, which is why there’s still a broad range for potential impact dates. Interestingly, September 24, 2182, offers a 1 in 2,700 chance of impact. These odds may sound comforting to some, but they underscore the uncertainty that orbits can shift over time due to numerous factors, including gravitational pulls from other celestial bodies.

The subject of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) is a priority for space agencies globally. So far, NASA has assured that “no known asteroid larger than 140 meters in size has a significant chance to hit Earth for the next 100 years.” But that’s not to say that we’re in the clear for the distant future. Researchers have developed novel methods to estimate the likelihood of an NEO causing devastation in more extended timelines. One study even delved into projections up to the year 3000 and concluded that the chances are low for any disastrous encounters with NEOs, Bennu included.

A silver lining in this sky full of rocks is that international space agencies have been brainstorming deflection methods. If Bennu—or any other asteroid—were to pose an imminent threat, the United States and China are among the countries that have looked into using rocket impacts to change the asteroid’s course. In a practical application of this concept, NASA recently succeeded in altering an asteroid’s path by slamming a probe into it.

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While Bennu does command a level of concern due to its proximity and potential for destruction, ongoing studies and technological advances are continually improving our ability to assess and mitigate these kinds of celestial threats. Bennu may or may not be a future headline for a cataclysmic event, but it certainly serves as a compelling reminder that our planet exists in a dynamic and ever-changing universe. With the aid of focused scientific inquiry and international collaboration, we’re not just passive spectators but active participants in shaping our cosmic destiny.

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