Humanity can breathe a sigh of relief. Asteroid 99942 Apophis, a 340-meter-wide space rock scientists initially believed to be one of the most hazardous near-Earth objects, will not hit our planet in 2068 as feared, after all.
“A 2068 impact is not in the realm of possibility anymore, and our calculations don’t show any impact risk for at least the next 100 years,” Davide Farnocchia, a navigation engineer working at NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, confirmed this week.
Apophis has sparked many scaremongering headlines since it was discovered in 2004, and given the Greek name for Apep, an Egyptian god associated with darkness and death. The rock was immediately added to databases listing the riskiest asteroids by NASA and the European Space Agency.
At first, astronomers tracking the object said there was a small risk it would smash into Earth in 2029. That was later ruled out, though they said it could have a second chance when it comes near again in 2036. The risk was, again, recalculated and found to be off as well, though the scientists said the space rock could come back to threaten us in 2068.
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Those fears, however, have been put to rest after boffins were able to get a closer look at Apophis's orbit as it passed by at a safe distance on March 5. Now they reckon it won’t crash into Earth in 2068 nor any time over the next century. Experts are so sure about this that the asteroid has been removed from official risk lists by NASA and the ESA.
“With the support of recent optical observations and additional radar observations, the uncertainty in Apophis’ orbit has collapsed from hundreds of kilometers to just a handful of kilometers when projected to 2029. This greatly improved knowledge of its position in 2029 provides more certainty of its future motion, so we can now remove Apophis from the risk list,” Farnocchia added.
The persistent asteroid is still expected to fly by Earth at a distance of less than 32,000km (20,000 miles) – placing it even closer than some satellites in geosynchronous orbits – on April 13, 2029, though our planet’s gravity will deflect its path, nudging it further away into space. Here’s a quick video showing its future trajectory.
For this development, you can thank the astronomers who monitored the object using a 70-meter (230-foot) radio antenna at the Deep Space Network’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the US, and were able to track the rock's motion to an accuracy of about 150 metres.
The radar images have a resolution of about 38.75 meters (127 feet) per pixel – not bad for trying to eyeball a moving object 17 million kilometers away. “If we had binoculars as powerful as this radar, we would be able to sit in Los Angeles and read a dinner menu at a restaurant in New York,” said Marina Brozovic, a scientist working at JPL, who led the radar observations.
Instead of feeling a tiny sense of dread, we can now all look forward to Apophis paying us a harmless visit in eight years when it will be visible to the naked eye. Scientists will use this opportunity to study the asteroid at an even closer detail than currently possible to figure out how fast it's spinning and if that could cause “asteroid quakes” on its surface.
“When I started working with asteroids after college, Apophis was the poster child for hazardous asteroids,” said Farnocchia. “There’s a certain sense of satisfaction to see it removed from the risk list, and we’re looking forward to the science we might uncover during its close approach in 2029.” ®