An asteroid 99 metres in diameter will zoom by Earth on August 16, travelling at a staggering speed of 31,317mph. But while NASA is not worried about the space rock known as PJ, the US space agency is concerned about a much larger relative of its. NASA has sent back images of four potential sites on Asteroid Bennu, the monster 500 metre space rock which its OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft has recently arrived at.

The sites have been targeted for OSIRIS-Rex to collect samples from and return them to Earth by 2023.

However, the space agency is at Bennu for another reason – there are small fears that the asteroid could come crashing into Earth within a few centuries.

Experts say there is a one in 24,000 chance this space rock could come crashing into our planet within 120 years time, but this depends on the Yarkovsky effect.

The Yarkovsky effect is when an asteroid or celestial body changes its orbit due to small push of heat, either from itself expelling gasses or other celestial bodies including the Sun.

Forget asteroid PJ, BENNU is the COLLISION COURSE space rock NASA is REALLY worried about (Image: NASA)

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OSIRIS-Rex will continue to orbit Bennu (Image: NASA)

Part of the reason NASA is sending the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft there is to gather more information about the space rock which is 500 metres in length.

NASA fears that the asteroid, which has the potential to wipe out a country on Earth, could hit our planet within the next 120 years, with the next close flyby in 2135.

The mission will give vital information on how to deflect asteroids from their collision course with Earth.

But NASA reiterates that while there is a small chance Earth could be impacted, “over millions of years, of all of the planets, Bennu is most likely to hit Venus.”

READ MORE: Asteroid TERROR: Fears of human EXTINCTION over mega rock strike 

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OSIRIS-Rex has been getting up close and personal with Bennu (Image: NASA)

For now however, NASA is focussing on returning samples from Bennu, which OSIRIS-Rex arrived at in December 2018 following a gruelling journey of over a billion miles.

OSIRIS-Rex has now completely mapped Bennu, and has selected four potential sites which it could select samples from.

The plan next is to whittle these sites down to two, where it will collect samples from a one inch area.

NASA was not prepared for just how rocky Bennu would be, so it is looking for an area where samples are fine enough for the machine to ingest.

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The four potential sites of Bennu (Image: NASA)

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Bennu will help unlock the secrets of the solar system (Image: NASA)

Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson, said: “We knew that Bennu would surprise us, so we came prepared for whatever we might find.

“As with any mission of exploration, dealing with the unknown requires flexibility, resources and ingenuity.

“The OSIRIS-REx team has demonstrated these essential traits for overcoming the unexpected throughout the Bennu encounter.”

nasa

NASA’s budget has been dwindling since the Apollo mission (Image: EXPRESS)

Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said: “Although OSIRIS-REx was designed to collect a sample from an asteroid with a beach-like area, the extraordinary in-flight performance to date demonstrates that we will be able to meet the challenge that the rugged surface of Bennu presents.

“That extraordinary performance encompasses not only the spacecraft and instruments, but also the team who continues to meet every challenge that Bennu throws at us.”

By collecting samples, NASA hopes to unlock the secrets of the solar system, as Bennu is a remnant of our galactic neighbourhoods formation some 4.6 billion years ago.

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OSIRIS-Rex left Earth in September 2016 (Image: GETTY)

Bashar Rizk, instrument scientist for OSIRIS-Rex said: “The story of this asteroid is the story of the solar system.

“When we understand Bennu, we will understand something fundamental about our solar system.”

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