Earthlings can feel some relief for now, as NASA has confirmed our planet is safe from a particularly worrisome asteroid for the next century at least.
99942 Apophis—which was discovered in 2004—had been identified as one of the most hazardous asteroids that could impact the planet. But results from a new radar observation campaign, combined with precise orbit analysis, have helped astronomers conclude that Apophis won’t hit Earth in 2068—as had been the fear.
Estimated to be about 1,100 feet across, when Apophis—named after the Egyptian god of destruction—made a flyby of Earth in early March, NASA states its scientists took the opportunity to use powerful radar observations to refine the estimate of its orbit around the Sun with extreme precision, enabling them to confidently rule out any impact risk in 2068 and long after.
“Although Apophis made a recent close approach with Earth, it was still nearly 10.6 million miles away. Even so, we were able to acquire incredibly precise information about its distance to an accuracy of about 150 meters [490 feet],” said JPL scientist Marina Brozovic, who led the radar campaign. “This campaign not only helped us rule out any impact risk, it set us up for a wonderful science opportunity.”
On April 13, 2029, NASA says the asteroid will pass less than 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) from our planet’s surface. During that close approach, Apophis will be visible to observers on the ground in the Eastern Hemisphere without the aid of a telescope or binoculars.
NASA explains this makes for an unrivaled chance for astronomers to get a close-up view of a solar system relic.
“When I started working with asteroids after college, Apophis was the poster child for hazardous asteroids,” said Davide Farnocchia of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies. “There’s a certain sense of satisfaction to see it removed from the risk list, and we’re looking forward to the science we might uncover during its close approach in 2029.”
Sounds like we should all be making a note in our diaries about an amazing night sky-watching opportunity in 8 years’ time.