What you need to know:
We may soon learn a little more about the creation of our small section of God’s endless Universe.
The beautiful Christian song, “How Great Thou Art,” has been in my heart and on my tongue since the arrival on Planet Earth on Sunday, September 24, of a small sample of dirt and gravel from an asteroid with the lovely name of Bennu. With an estimated weight of 250 grams, the debris that is believed to be at least 4.5 billion years old, was brought to Earth inside a human-made capsule, itself flown to and from Bennu by a spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx. This is the acronym for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, a $1 billion project of America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), with significant input by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), which contributed a laser altimeter instrument to the spacecraft.
Regolith is the blanket of loose, unconsolidated material (dust or rock) that covers solid rock. It is that dust that has me giddy with joy, and more than 200 scientists around the world drooling at the prospect of studying this relic from the early days of the creation of our solar system. It is expected that the samples will be preserved for decades, perhaps centuries, unless Bennu, in a moment of uncontrolled anger, drops by to retrieve its stolen dirt.
Not to depress you, Tingasiga, but I should let you know that of the one million known asteroids in our Solar System, Bennu is considered one of the most likely to hit Earth one of these days. Though the risk of that happening is estimated to be 0.037 percent (1 in 2,700), you and I will probably miss the event. If it ever happens, the expected date of the rendezvous is Tuesday, September 24, 2,182. That is exactly 159 years from now, by which time not even our great, great, great grandchildren will care who we were.
The survivors of that asteroid hit will not care about the quarrels that consumed their ancestors back in 2023. The historians will be explaining the demise of Africa, marvelling at how greed, self-hate, and the foolishness of that continent’s rulers were more destructive than the strike by the asteroid. Africa, which will have made the great leap forward to become a former colony of China, will have been completely stripped of its mineral wealth, and its population reconfigured by a new World Order that will render our languages and other cultural identities extinct.
Now, where are we? Ah, yes! Bennu, a relatively small piece of celestial rock and dust, about 0.49 km wide, that orbits the Sun every 14 months, and passes near Earth every six years, coming as close as 480,000 km. Scientists have projected that Bennu will come as close as 203,000 km on September 25, 2135, which will set it on a potential collision course with Earth in 2182.
Here is the good news Tingasiga. Whereas the 1 in 2,700 odds of Bennu hitting Earth is more than five times greater than someone being struck by lightning, space scientists have assured us that long before the year 2182, Bennu will have a 48 percent chance of falling into the Sun, and a 10 percent chance of being ejected out of the inner Solar system. It will be more likely to hit Venus than Earth or Mercury. Should it hit Earth, Bennu will likely cause less damage than that which was inflicted by Chicxulub impactor, the asteroid that hit Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula about 66 million years ago. The impact of that 10-kilometer-wide asteroid led to the mass extinction of 75 percent of plant and animal species on Earth, including the dinosaurs.
However, the effects of Bennu dropping by could still be devastating. “The asteroid would leave a 6.4 km wide crater, knock out nearby cities, and probably divide continents,” the scientists inform us with an emotionless tone. This is why work on how to deflect asteroids from their orbits to save Earth is already in progress.
On September 27, 2022, NASA successfully crashed a spacecraft into the asteroid Dimorphos, 11 million km from Earth, nudging it into a new orbit. This mission, called The Double Asteroid Reduction Test (DART), was part of the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, a multinational collaboration that seeks to protect our tiny blue dot from drunken celestial neighbours. It is doable.
This is an exciting time for today’s primary and secondary school students in Africa to cast their mental eyes towards the heavens and seek to be part of a future that is rich with opportunities in humanity’s great adventures, as we explore God’s amazing creation and protect future generations from danger that lurks in the starry sky that gives us nocturnal visual joy.
The mission to Bennu was conceived and planned many years before its launch on September 8, 2016. The spacecraft arrived at Bennu on December 3, 2018, orbited it for nearly two years, analyzing and mapping the asteroid’s surface, before landing at a crater called Nightingale and scooping up the precious sample on October 20, 2020. After six seconds, OSIRIS-Rex retreated into space, to continue its studies of the asteroid, until it departed for mother earth on May 10, 2021. After a 28-month trip back, the spacecraft released the sample return capsule on September 24, 2023, and the latter arrived home in a flawless landing in the desert of Utah, close to Salt Lake City. It is now safely stored in a hyper-clean room at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, USA.
Once again, the OSIRIS-Rex mission has reminded us about the importance of (1) working towards a very clear purpose, (2) using a well-coordinated collaborative plan, (3) with very clear national and organizational priorities, (4) put into practice, and (5) executed with perseverance in the face of challenges. These five Ps – purpose, plan, priorities, practice, perseverance – are the critical definers of individual, organizational, and national success. The next mission has already begun.
After flying 6.2 billion kilometres since its launch seven years ago, the mother ship, now renamed OSIRIS-APEX, immediately changed its trajectory, and began a new mission to the asteroid Apophis, which it will reach on April 21, 2029. This is human ingenuity and an uncompromising organization that celebrates God’s gift to us – scientific knowledge, skills, and tools to explore and enjoy His awesome creation. We may soon learn a little more about the creation of our small section of God’s endless Universe. Though our knowledge will remain infinitesimal, Earth’s current residents will learn a lot about our beginnings. Much more will be learnt by future scientists, many not yet born, using technology that we cannot begin to imagine. All to the glory of God.
Mulera is a medical doctor.