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Asteroid could smash into Earth, or it could unlock the secrets of life

The asteroid named RQ36 orbit's around the Sun and occasionally dangerously close to Earth. Scientists say it could actually smash into us in as little as 50 years.

Maria Eugenia Sansaturio of the Universidad de Valladolid in Spain last year put the odds of a collision at about 1000 to one, and said it could happen as early as 2060.

The years in which a collision was most likely were 2162 and 2182, Dr Sansaturio said.

RQ36 is approximately 580m — or half a kilometre — in diameter. OSIRIS-REx is expected to reach it in 2020, after travelling for four years, and return to Earth in 2023.

Scientists have observed that each time RQ36 completes its 20-year orbit of the Sun, it swings a little bit closer towards Earth.

In 1900, Russian engineer Ivan Yarkovsky proposed that thermal radiation emanating from the "night side" of asteroids — the side facing away from the Sun — could potentially change their orbit.

In 2016, researchers will send the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on a journey to an asteroid called 1999 RQ36 to collect samples from the body as it travels through space.

The NASA project to collect samples from RQ36 with a robotic arm is expected to cost about $US800 million.

As part of the mission, NASA also hopes to learn more about whether the "Yarkovsky" effect is pushing the asteroid closer to Earth.NASA is setting out to search for traces of life on an asteroid which could potentially wipe it out.

According to NASA, RQ36 is the perfect place to look for material dating back more than 4.5 billion years to the solar nebula which collapsed to create our solar system.

"This asteroid is a time capsule from the birth of our solar system and ushers in a new era of planetary exploration," said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division in Washington.

NASA is also interested to see whether RQ36 is carrying any organic molecules like the kind previously found on meteorite and comet samples.

The asteroid samples could give us new insights into how the solar system was formed and how life began.

That is, if we're around long enough to study them.

*Content and photo's contributed by NASA

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