Astronomers following the so-called doomsday asteroid Apophis, which will be whizzing past Earth on Thursday morning, have found the rock is much larger than had previously been assumed. Since the asteroid could hit Earth in 2036, that’s a problem.
The asteroid, named after an Egyptian god of chaos, darkness and destruction, had been thought to be around 885 feet (270 meters) wide, plus or minus a couple of hundred feet (60 meters). But as Apophis approached last weekend, astronomers at the Herschel Space Observatory took new observations and have concluded that astronomers have seriously underestimated both its size and its mass.
“The 20 per cent increase in diameter, from 270 to 325m, translates into a 75 per cent increase in our estimates of the asteroid’s volume or mass,” said Thomas Müller of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany.
“These numbers are first estimates based on the Herschel measurements alone, and other ongoing ground-based campaigns might produce additional pieces of information which will allow us to improve our results.”
In addition, the asteroid has a much different reflectivity, or albedo, than previously thought; 0.23 rather than the previous estimates of 0.33. This changes astronomer’s calculations of the Yarkovsky effect, or how the Sun’s heating and cooling influence will alter the asteroid’s progress in orbit.
Apophis caused alarm on Christmas Eve 2004 after a report that it had a 2.7 per cent chance of hitting Earth in 2029, and even if it missed, the encounter could set it up for another strike in 2036. The asteroid topped the Torino Scale of risk, briefly reaching level four out of 10 – where zero is no threat and 10 is WE’RE DOOMED!
After checking the data and weeding out the false reports, Apophis was downgraded to a level one threat and is currently expected to whizz past on Friday, April 13, 2029 at a distance of about 36,000 kilometers, just inside the orbit of our geostationary satellites. But there’s a kicker.
If the asteroid passes through a specific gravitational zone, it will perturb its progress just enough to make sure that it will most likely hit the Earth on April 13, 2036. According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, geek icon and director of the Hayden Planetarium, if it passes through the center of the gravitational “keyhole” it’ll hit the Pacific off Santa Monica, California and “sandblast the Western seaboard” with the resulting wave of tsunamis. …
And then there’s this… no need to abandon California just yet.
NASA scientists at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., effectively have ruled out the possibility the asteroid Apophis will impact Earth during a close flyby in 2036. The scientists used updated information obtained by NASA-supported telescopes in 2011 and 2012, as well as new data from the time leading up to Apophis’ distant Earth flyby yesterday (Jan. 9).
Discovered in 2004, the asteroid, which is the size of three-and-a-half football fields, gathered the immediate attention of space scientists and the media when initial calculations of its orbit indicated a 2.7 percent possibility of an Earth impact during a close flyby in 2029. Data discovered during a search of old astronomical images provided the additional information required to rule out the 2029 impact scenario, but a remote possibility of one in 2036 remained – until yesterday.
“With the new data provided by the Magdalena Ridge [New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology] and the Pan-STARRS [Univ. of Hawaii] optical observatories, along with very recent data provided by the Goldstone Solar System Radar, we have effectively ruled out the possibility of an Earth impact by Apophis in 2036,” said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL. “The impact odds as they stand now are less than one in a million, which makes us comfortable saying we can effectively rule out an Earth impact in 2036. Our interest in asteroid Apophis will essentially be for its scientific interest for the foreseeable future.”