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See you soon Apophis

Artistic illustration of Apophis. Source: Google creative commons.

Remember those awesomely tacky 90s movies Deep Impact and Armageddon? Well according to NASA there was a 2.7% chance of these movies becoming a reality. What I’m talking about here is the asteroid Apophis.

Discovered in 2004 (extremely recent in the context of space discoveries), Apophis gained notoriety due to NASA early predictions that it could potentially collide with Earth during a close fly by in 2029. The name Apophis is derived from the Egyptian god of evil and darkness, but it also went by another name, somewhat more ominous, the ‘doomsday asteroid’. This finding in conjunction with the highly accurate Mayan doomsday calendar added much of the fuel to the anti climactic end of the world on December 21, 2012. However, much to the dismay of all the doomsday preppers out there (or as they like to be called, neo-survivalists), Apophis, according to more recent and scientifically accurate findings, will not be colliding with Earth when it makes its rounds in 2029 and 2036.

Data provided by Magdalena Ridge, the Pan-STARRS optical observatories and Goldstone Solar System Radar have ruled out the possibility of an Earth impact by Apophis in 2036 – this according to Don Yeomans, the manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program Office at the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory).

“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.”

However, what is interesting is that initial predictions had the asteroids diameters pinned at 270m, but new data has clarified that the asteroids diameter is closer to 325m. “The 20% increase in diameter, from 270 to 325 m, translates into a 75% increase in our estimates of the asteroid’s volume or mass,” says Thomas Müller of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, chief analyst of the new data obtained from the European Space Agencies Herschel Space Observatory.

Both fly-bys in 2029 and 2036 are expected to be extremely close though, coming roughly as close as 31,000 kilometers to the Earth surface (commercial airliners fly approximately 12 kilometers about the earths surface) which puts it between the Earth and other geostationary satellites.

Aside from the hype surrounding the asteroid, there remains a very real and important scientific discovery. Improving our physical parameters of Apophis and computer algorithms designed to track its orbit is paramount in being able to make more accurate predication of it future trajectory. “As well as the data being scientifically important in their own right, understanding key properties of asteroids will provide vital details for missions that might eventually visit potentially hazardous objects,” says Laurence O’Rourke, Principal Investigator of the MACH-11 observing programme, from the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC).

What I know for sure is that come 2029, ill definitely be grabbing a blanket and some high powered binoculars to view this beauty.

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