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Asteroid Apophis is hurtling towards Earth, should we be worried?

Asteroid Apophis is coming back towards our planet. For a bit, it seemed like it might collide with Earth. Let’s just say those were exciting times for the folks keeping an eye on asteroids. But as of March 2021, NASA assured us that there’s no way the space rock, 99942 Apophis, will hit Earth for at least a century. So, thank goodness. We can scratch that doomsday possibility off the list.

What’s still a fact is that on Friday, the 13th of April in 2029, we’re in for a close encounter with an asteroid wider than three football fields, closer than anything its size has ever been to Earth in our recorded history.

Apophis brings new opportunities to learn about Earth’s genesis

If an asteroid hits, it’s trouble, but if it just flies by, it’s a chance. Apophis presents one of the coolest opportunities for science to figure out how the Earth was formed and how we could stop it from getting wrecked in the future.

In the movies, those pesky asteroids pop out of nowhere and zoom straight at us, only to be taken down by heroic action or some well-aimed missiles, thanks to Bruce Willis types. But in reality, these space rocks casually orbit the sun in wonky paths. We usually spot them years or even decades before they might come too close, which might not be as thrilling for the big screen, but definitely helps us keep the planet intact.

Back in 2004, scientists stumbled upon Apophis. When they crunched the numbers for its possible paths, they freaked out to find there was a 3% chance it might crash into Earth in 2029. To pay homage to its scary prospects, they decided to call it Apophis, after that Egyptian god known for stirring up chaos.

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Apophis won’t collide with Earth at least for a century

Astronomers have this cool color-coded warning thing called the Torino scale. It helps them figure out how much of a threat an asteroid or comet poses to Earth within the next 100 years. Since they started using it in 1999, none of the 30,000 or so space objects orbiting near us have ever gone higher than a 1 on the scale, which goes up to 10. But guess what? Apophis hit a solid 4.

The more astronomers keep an eye on an asteroid, the better they understand its path. In just a few months, scientists could say for sure it wouldn’t hit in 2029. And after a couple of years, they were pretty confident it wouldn’t hit in 2036 either.

And in 2021, the radar checks showed Apophis won’t hit us during its 2068 flyby, meaning Earth is safe for at least a hundred years. With this danger out of the way, it was time to dive deep into some asteroid knowledge.

In space lingo, “close” is a flexible idea. When it comes closest, Apophis will zoom by at around 19,000 miles (31,000 kilometers) above Earth. That’s just about a tenth of the distance to the moon. No one on Earth will feel the need to duck, and it won’t look like a blazing ball racing across the sky.

The asteroid will be visible to naked eye in some regions

When the time comes, folks in Europe and Africa can catch a glimpse of Apophis without any fancy gear. It’ll look like a star cruising through the dark, shining as brightly as Cassiopeia and moving slower than a satellite. While it might seem distant to us, NASA will actually be able to get up close and personal.

The spaceship OSIRIS-REx, which is now bringing back goodies from the Bennu asteroid, will link up with Apophis in 2029. Just after April 13, the craft, now called OSIRIS-APEX, will head straight for the asteroid and get sucked into its orbit. Eventually, it’ll get near enough to scoop up a sample from its surface.

Apophis looks like a peanut shell, a shape that scientists call a “contact binary.” This chunk of nickel, iron, and silicate is a leftover from the ancient days of the solar system, born from the massive cloud of gas and dust that came together 4.6 billion years ago, eventually paving the way for us.

Because it’s so close, scientists can use tools on the ground to study Apophis in ways they’ve never tried with an object this big before. On December 27, the crew at the HAARP facility in Gakona, Alaska, beamed a radio signal at the 2010 XC15 asteroid. The aim was to check if the radio waves could go through the asteroid and provide info on what’s inside. Mark Haynes, the head of the project and a JPL radar systems engineer, explained that this was all just a test.

If we ever needed to shove an asteroid aside, understanding how its mass is spread out inside would be super useful. Earth gets smacked by hundreds of space rocks annually, but most are no biggie.

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Big asteroids can be civilization-threatening

However, a giant one could cause chaos way beyond where it hits first. Take the Chicxulub asteroid, for instance, which crashed into the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico 66 million years ago, unleashing about 420 zettajoules of energy.

That crazy heat wave turned rock to vapor and set the world on fire, causing massive wildfires everywhere. Then came a long, icy period as a thick cloud of dust blocked the sun. When it finally cleared, 75% of all life had vanished forever, including every dino that didn’t fly.

That Chicxulub asteroid was about as wide as Paris, a whole 7 miles. Apophis is as long as the Eiffel Tower, which is pretty massive too. If something that size crashed into us, it might not be as awful as Chicxulub, but it would still mess things up pretty badly.

NASA’s got a plan for that. Just last year, they slammed their DART spacecraft into a rock 7 million miles out there to check if we can actually steer a space thingy off its course. If we ever needed to push an asteroid away, we wouldn’t go for some massive, Death Star-style explosion. Nope, we’d just fire a super-fast missile that could nudge it off its path, just a tad.

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.