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This asteroid almost certainly isn’t going to crash into Earth and kill us all

An artist's impression of the collision that created Bennu. (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab)

Earth, meet Bennu: In 2018, humankind will visit the asteroid with a spacecraft designed to bring samples home. If you believe what's trending on Google right now, you might think that Bennu is going to follow up and visit us just a few years or decades later. Spoiler alert: That's probably not going to happen.

There's a 1 in 2,700 chance of Bennu impacting Earth 150 years from now. It's nearly twice as likely that you (you personally) will die by falling down a flight of stairs than it is that this asteroid will hit us.

There's a 1 in 2,700 chance of Asteroid Bennu impacting Earth 150 years from now. (Video: NASA)

The comments on NASA's latest YouTube video are pretty bleak:

And Google's super-truthy algorithm can't seem to make up its mind:

I mean, look. I know you know that Bennu isn't going to destroy the Earth. Probably. But I just wanted to check in.

"We're not talking about an asteroid that could destroy the Earth," OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona told "We're not anywhere near that kind of energy for an impact."

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The issue here is that Lauretta reportedly told The Times that Bennu "may be destined to cause immense suffering and death," which is honestly not a great thing to tell a newspaper about an asteroid with a very small chance of hitting us in 150 years.

If Bennu were to smack into our planet, the impact would be pretty tremendous. The rock is about 1,650 feet across. But in order to hit us, it would need to veer out of its current orbit in a very unlucky way. The veering is a distinct possibility, because a close pass of Earth in 2135 (relatively speaking — it will still be 180,000 miles away) could knock it out of whack. But there's very little chance of that new course sending the asteroid straight to Earth.

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If 1 in 2,700 still sounds too dicey to you, keep in mind that NASA already has its eyes all over this thing. Should the worst happen, NASA’s Near-Earth Objects Program Office will likely detect the new orbit in plenty of time for us to do something about it. Unless society has completely collapsed by then, in which case a lot of our descendants are just doomed. But Earth will carry on. And unless the last vestiges of humanity are huddled around a single garbage fire for warmth when Bennu hits, our species will carry on as well.

There are better reasons to care about our buddy Bennu: Later this year, NASA's asteroid-sample-return mission OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security — Regolith Explorer) will launch in pursuit of Bennu. It will arrive in 2018 and bring a sample back home to Earth in 2023.

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"Bennu's experiences will tell us more about where our solar system came from and how it evolved," Edward Beshore of the University of Arizona, the deputy principal investigator for the mission, said in a statement. Because they lack the geological activity that has evolved Earth into what it is today, asteroids are thought to provide unique windows into the chemistry of the early solar system. Bennu could be like a time capsule that takes us back over 4 billion years — back before the birth of our own sun.

Asteroids like Bennu may have been instrumental in carrying life-giving molecules to Earth, and studying its composition in the lab will help us find evidence of that process.

"Like the detectives in a crime show episode, we'll examine bits of evidence from Bennu to understand more completely the story of the solar system, which is ultimately the story of our origin," Beshore said.

As a bonus, the mission will give us a lot more information to work with in calculating Bennu's future trajectories — and in figuring out how to stop it if it starts careening toward a collision course.

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