Apophis is about the same size as the asteroid that blasted
the mile-wide Barringer Crater in Arizona.
Credit: David Roddy, USGSFriday the 13th, April, 2029: If you’re superstitious, this might not be a good day to schedule a near-Earth asteroid encounter. But, as it happens, that’s the day that the Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) Apophis will make a very close flyby of Earth–a once in 800 years event for an asteroid Apophis’ size.
Fortunately, scientists have already predicted, 20 years in advance, that this is our lucky day: Apophis won’t hit the Earth at that time. Rest assured (pretty much).
Discovered in 2004, Apophis is an asteroid about 270 meters across that orbits the Sun at distances ranging from about one astronomical unit (1 AU; the distance between Earth and the Sun) and about three quarters of an AU. Apophis orbits the Sun once every 323 days.
After its initial discovery, before our knowledge of its orbital trajectory had been refined, astronomers had predicted that there was a small chance it could hit the Earth on April 13, 2029, but as we got a clearer picture of its orbit the probability dwindled to practically nothing. Instead, Apophis will pass by Earth no closer than about 18,000 miles. Whew! Disaster averted, and we didn’t even have to send Bruce Willis to deal with it.
But wait–that’s not all. Though Apophis almost certainly won’t hit us in 2029, there’s a chance that this close encounter will set the asteroid up for an impact with Earth in 2036–something like 1 in 45,000.
So, if we know there won’t be an impact in 2029, why don’t we know whether or not there will be one in 2036? Why all the suspense?
Here’s where I pull out my pinball analogy. Think of a pinball machine. The play zone around your flippers represents near-Earth space, the various bumpers up in the field represent all the planets, the Sun, and other large asteroids of the Solar System, and the pinball represents a Near Earth Asteroid, like Apophis.
When the pinball inevitably comes into the play zone, there are two possibilities: either it will hit (or be hit by) one of your flippers and thus be deflected back into the field where it will bounce around some more between bumpers, or it will sail right through that dreaded “window” between the tips of the flippers and fall into the end pocket–which represents Terra Firma and a catastrophe if a NEA falls there. As any pinball player knows, it’s nearly impossible to predict exactly what path the pinball will follow into the play zone until it gets close.
It’s a lot like that with a NEA in the Solar System: as it orbits around the Sun, its course is influenced by the gravitational pull of planets, large asteroids, and potentially smaller asteroids that it might pass close to. A very small deviation in a NEA’s direction or speed can, over time, “amplify” into a very large difference in position much farther down the road.
Given the 2029 close encounter with Earth, though we’re reasonably confident Apophis won’t hit us on that pass, we don’t know precisely how that encounter will alter Apophis’ orbit. The gravitational interaction between Earth and a NEA passing close by is a complex one, with many variables, not the least of which is Earth’s non-uniform gravitational field.
If Apophis passes Earth through precisely the right “window” in 2029–say, right between the flipper tips–then it could be set up for an impact at its 2036 encounter. That window, called a gravitational keyhole, is only about 600 meters across for the 2029 encounter.
As we gather more data on Apophis, we’ll get a better prediction for what may happen in 2036–but right now the odds are that it will ultimately miss us at that time. That’s a good thing, too, because at that time Bruce Willis will be 81 years old… and even John Glenn was only 80 when he returned to space…