Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Apophis Now

Tomorrow, an asteroid about the size of an automobile will hurtle past the Earth, missing impact with us by only about 64,300 miles. That asteroid is called 2011 CA7 and was discovered by astronomers only a month ago - a fact that should give pause to those who believe unquestioningly that NASA's Near-Earth Object Program has everything under control when it comes to watching for unexpected oncoming objects.

Scarier still, a four-foot-wide boulder we call asteroid 2011 CQ came within just 3400 miles of Earth on February 4th, but you didn't hear much about it in the media. It was only discovered only 14 hours before it made its close-enough-to-smell-us pass. Think on that awhile.

The asteroid 99942 Apophis was once believed to be in danger of colliding with Earth on April 13, 2012. That risk has since been ruled out by NASA, but now Russian scientists have announced that Apophis will come disturbingly close to Earth on its April 13, 2029 flyby. "On that date," says Wikipedia, "it will become as bright as magnitude 3.3 (visible to the naked eye from rural as well as darker suburban areas, visible with binoculars from most locations). This close approach will be visible from Europe, Africa, and western Asia." The chart above, also from Wikipedia, indicates the potential impact zone for Earth along Apophis' path.

NASA maintains the Russian scientists' calculations are in error, however, and that Apophis will be at least 18,300 miles from Earth at its closest approach. Still, considering that the potato-looking asteroid is almost 900 feet wide, and given that it will pass well into areas inhabited by our orbital satellites, it still has great potential to wreak havoc.

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