Speculation has been building since 2004 that asteroid Apophis might hit Earth in 2029. The worry was fueled by astronomical calculations that revealed the asteroid had a 2.7 percent probability of striking Earth. If it missed, NASA said back then that the space rock would have another chance to cause widespread destruction in 2036. On that pass it could impact the Earth or Moon.
Apophis, a Greek name for the enemy of revered Egyptian sun-god Ra, is called Apep within the hierarchy of Egyptian deities. Apep was the “Uncreator” living in an eternal darkness who eternally battles the sun.
Measured at more than 1,000 feet long, the asteroid could cause considerable damage if it impacted Earth, especially if it came down near a populated area or made an ocean landfall resulting in a massive tsunami.
But NASA has declared an “all clear.”
Russia not so sure
The Russian space agency and some astronomers believe NASA’s mistaken. Astrophysicists there calculate Apophis has a very good chance of slipping through a “gravitational keyhole”—a tiny region of space barely more than a half mile wide near the Earth. If the asteroid does pass through the keyhole when it makes its close pass during 2029 the odds of it smacking into Earth during 2036 significantly increase.
Because Russian space scientists believe there is a much greater chance Apophis will impact on April 13, 2036 than NASA does, the Russian government has ordered preliminary projects to defend the Earth from the asteroid.
The Russian international news agency, Rianovosti quotes Professor Leonid Sokolov of the St. Petersburg State University as saying, “Apophis will approach Earth at a distance of 37,000-38,000 kilometers on April 13, 2029. Its likely collision with Earth may occur on April 13, 2036.”
Sokolov admits the chance is slim, but emphasizes the asteroid still a real threat. “Our task is to consider various alternatives and develop scenarios and plans of action depending on the results of further observations of Apophis.”
But is there really any risk?
“Technically, they’re correct, there is a chance in 2036 [that Apophis will hit Earth],” Donald Yeomans, the head of NASA’s Near-Earth Object (NEO) Program Office is quoted as reported by FoxNews.
NASA’s JPL is convinced that chance is minuscule: one out of 250,000.
In an official press release NASA states that Jet Propulsion space scientists in Pasadena California 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.”
Other NASA scientists and American astronomers agree. They believe the Russian calculations are wrong.
One who supports the American calculation is Paul Chodas who’s also a member of the JPL NEO team. Chodas says Apophis is a risk to Earth over the next million years. Its orbit makes the asteroid one to track closely. But he disagrees with the Russian idea to send a spacecraft to the asteroid in an attempt to change its orbit.
“You have the potential of increasing the impact probability with failures in the mission,” Chodas explained to Space.com. “You could make matters worse.”