Chicken Little and the rest of Earth’s inhabitants can breathe a sigh of relief now NASA has assured us the sky isn’t falling. To be more precise, our planet is not the bullseye of the path of a menacing asteroid named Apophis. Crack NASA scientists determined Earth is safe for the next century from Apophis slamming into it. Whew! One less thing to worry about in my lifetime, but my descendants better stay on the alert.
Interestingly, this possible impending doom has not received top billing, or even top ten billing, in the national news. Apparently Americans are more concerned about being felled by a tiny coronavirus than they are about being splattered by a 1,200 foot wide space rock falling on them from the sky. Regardless, aren’t we tired of hearing about coronavirus? Let’s get up to speed about a different disaster looming over us–literally.
After surviving 2020, we all know what a virus is. But do we know what an asteroid is? Fans of sci-fi movies and TV shows surely comprehend this space object which is basically a small rocky object that orbits the sun. Small is, of course, a relative term. Asteroids are much smaller than planets, but Apophis is still about the size of 3 1/2 football fields. How’d you like that to fall on you/your house/your community? I’m envisioning the fate of the wicked witch in “The Wizard of Oz” here. It didn’t end well for her. Splat!
Asteroids are left over from the formation of our solar system. (Translation: They are REALLY old, perhaps older than dirt.) These solar objects have jagged and irregular shapes and are made of different kinds of rocks. Most of the asteroids in our solar system are found in the main asteroid belt–a region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. When small bits of an asteroid break off and enter Earth’s atmosphere, they are known as meteorites. Personally, I don’t care if it is an asteroid or a meteorite, I don’t want either one crashing down upon me.
Apophis, the asteroid causing all the declarations of doom, was first detected back in 2004 at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson. Scientists classified it as an S-type, or stony (I’d suggest “S” for “scary” as well), asteroid made up of rocky materials and a mixture of nickel and iron. Despite this intimidating description, Apophis is believed to be shaped like a peanut. So, life as we know it on Earth was deemed at risk by a giant goober in the heavens.
Although its shape may not evoke fear, the asteroid’s name does. Apophis was the demon serpent who personified evil and chaos in ancient Egyptian mythology. This serpent dwelled in eternal darkness and was an enemy of the sun god, Ra. The Egyptians believed the sun was Ra’s great barge that descended into the underworld at night; as it navigated along in the dark, the barge would be attacked by Apophis in an attempt to kill Ra and to prevent sunrise. To think I used to be concerned about monsters under the bed; whoa, know we have to work about a massive demon serpent under the earth. Yikes!
Upon its discovery, Apophis was considered one of the most hazardous asteroids with the potential to impact Earth. Thus, it was placed on the asteroid risk list maintained by the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (“CNEOS”) managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA. Apophis set a record for the highest rating on the 0 to 10 Torino impact hazard scale in 2004 when it was assessed a Level 4. Danger, Will Robinson!
So how does one respond to the threat of annihilation by an asteroid? Several proposals have been floated including the use of a nuclear bomb. Desperate times do call for desperate measures, but employing a nuclear bomb seems to raise other dangers.
Thankfully, relying on the nuclear bomb option to avoid impact by Apophis is not going to be necessary. Scientists were able to make observations in March when the asteroid passed within 10.6 million miles of Earth (Whew! That was close!). The resulting calculations showed no impact risk for at least 100 years, allowing Apophis to be removed from the “risk list.” After a hundred years, it will be someone else’s problem and not that of anyone reading this post.
To make the determination no impact risk exists, scientists used both radar and telescopes. In particular, they utilized the Deep Space Networks Goldstone radio antennae near Barstow, California. The dish in Barstow is 1 of 3 around the world for communicating across deep space with spacecraft. “Hello, is anybody out there?” The March investigation allowed the scientists to acquire, as the Jet Propulsion Lab describes it, “incredibly precise information” to an accuracy of 490 feet. The observational power available to them was equivalent to using a pair of binoculars in Los Angeles to read the dinner menu of a New York restaurant.
While Apophis hitting Earth has been ruled out for the next century, close encounters are still ahead. Mark your calendars now for April 13, 2029. On that date Apophis will pass a mere 19,800 miles from the Earth and come between Earth and the moon; in fact, the asteroid will be ten times nearer to our planet than the moon. With merely the naked eye, people in the Eastern Hemisphere can view the asteroid on that flyby. Further close encounters with Apophis are slated in 2036 and 2068. It’s never too soon to start planning your watch parties.
Now that we’ve learned about the danger of NEO’s (Near Earth Objects), viewing the night sky has gained a new perspective. While we are oohing and aahing about the starry, starry night, we must be on the lookout for space objects aiming to annihilate us. Spotting the first star of the night could be a lifesaver if our wish made upon that star is to avoid being squished by an asteroid, Apophis or any others whizzing around in the heavens. I don’t want to have to utter the famous Chicken Little line, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
Is an asteroid crashing into the Earth a danger that has ever crossed your mind? How confident are you in the scientists’ conclusion there is no impact risk from Apophis for the next century? Were you aware that there are scientists whose jobs are literally to determine if the sky will be falling?