Schoolboy's asteroid-strike sums are wrong

German kid saw 1 in 450 chance of Apophis apocalypse


Widespread media reports claim that a German schoolboy has recalculated the likelihood of a deadly planet-smasher asteroid hitting the Earth, and found the catastrophe is enormously more likely than NASA thought. The boy's sums were said to have been checked by both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), and found to be correct.

There's only one problem with the story: the kid's sums are in fact wrong, NASA's are right, and the ESA swear blind they never said any different. An ESA spokesman in Germany told the Reg this morning: "A small boy did do these calculations, but he made a mistake... NASA's figures are correct."

It would appear that the intial article in the Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten, which says that NASA and the ESA endorsed Nico Marquardt's calculations, was incorrect. The story was picked up by German tabloids and the AFP news wire, and is now all over the internet.

Marquardt apparently reckoned that the odds of the well-known Apophis asteroid hitting Earth were not one in 45,000 as assessed by NASA, but rather one in 450. Apophis will pass close by Earth in 2029 and 2036, so close that it will come nearer than satellites in geostationary orbit.

It seems that Marquardt's calculations included the possibility of collision with a satellite in some way not thought to have been covered by NASA, which bumped up the odds of a subsequent Earth strike. But NASA says:

[The asteroid will pass] within the distance of Earth's geosynchronous satellites. However, because Apophis will pass interior to the positions of these satellites at closest approach, in a plane inclined at 40 degrees to the Earth's equator and passing outside the equatorial geosynchronous zone when crossing the equatorial plane, it does not threaten the satellites in that heavily populated region.

All in all, it seems there's no need to dust off the asteroid-busting space nukes just yet. ®


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