Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Speaking of Science: The asteroid that’s headed right for us

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

A panoramic image of the starry sky from the site of ESOs Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Cerro Paranal in Chile.

Making plans for Friday, April 13, 2029? Don't bother putting "dying in a killer asteroid impact" on your to-do list.

Fifteen years ago, scientists at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona spotted an asteroid bigger than the Pentagon zipping through the inner solar system. Early calculations of the object's orbit predicted that it had a 2.7 percent possibility of colliding with Earth when it flew past in 2029.

The space rock was named Apophis, for the ancient Egyptian chaos deity, and it was initially given the highest-ever rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale, which scientists use to represent the danger an asteroid poses to Earth.

If a collision does occur, it wouldn't quite beat the mass-extinction-inducing catastrophe of the Chicxulub impact, which wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago. But it still wouldn't be good. According to NASA's Center for Near Earth Object Studies, Apophis would enter the atmosphere at 27,000 mph. Upon impact, it would unleash 750 megatons of energy — the equivalent of 750 million tons of TNT.

Scientists spent several days seeking out old pictures of where the asteroid had been — which would help them understand where it might be headed. By December 2004, they had good news for the planet: When Apophis flies by in 2029, it will get no closer than 19,400 miles — one 10th the distance to the moon, but still too far to do any damage.

Even so, the event should be a sight to behold. At its closest approach, the asteroid will shine like a star, visible to the naked eye in much of the eastern hemisphere. "No one in recorded history has ever seen an asteroid in space so bright," NASA said in 2005.

So now what are your plans for Friday, April 13, 2029?

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