We’ve had big asteroid hits in places like Siberia that showed up without warning but fortunately did not do apocalyptic damage. We’ve had other surprise hits that were detected only after they splashed in the ocean. A few close calls occurred with a day or two warning from the sky watchers who say we need to be better prepared for the ‘big one’ but have nothing to offer today other than a day or two warning to hide somewhere … but they can’t say where. Now we finally have a bona fide long-range notice of an asteroid that will come extremely close to Earth in 2029 and again in 2036 … so close that the prognosticators say an impact can’t be ruled out. Should we start planning for a mission to the asteroid, a nuclear missile deflection or an end-of-the-world party?
How about all three? The asteroid is Apophis, discovered in 2004 by Roy A. Tucker, David J. Tholen, and Fabrizio Bernardi at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. At that time, astronomers calculated that the 40-million-ton, 370 meters (1214 feet) wide rock had a 2.7 percent chance of hitting the Earth on Friday the 13th in April, 2029, when it will pass within 18,600 miles of the planet. The chances are good that it will be a near-hit, but they’re also good that the close pass will disrupt Apophis’ path and mess with the calculations on how close it will get when it swings by again on April 13, 2036. In a recent interview with Astrowatch.net, Alberto Cellino of the Observatory of Turin in Italy gave this dire warning:
“We can rule out a collision at the next closest approach with the Earth, but then the orbit will change in a way that is not fully predictable just now, so we cannot predict the behavior on a longer timescale.”
Forty million tons slamming into the planet could cause a crater 1.25 miles wide and 1,700 feet deep. If you’re not directly underneath it, you’ll still be affected by a blast the equivalent of 880 million tons of TNT or 65,000 times the power of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
Worried yet? Students at MIT aren’t. Twenty of them currently enrolled in Space Systems Engineering class are designing a robotic space mission to meet Apophis, take measurements and determine if defensive actions will need to be taken in 2036. Being typical college students – albeit really smart ones – they’re treating it like a kick-starter project, says their professor, David Miller.
“There have been plenty of missions to comets and asteroids, so why is this unique? Apophis is coming so close that Earth’s gravity is going to tug and redirect its path. The Earth is going to give it a big thunk.”
Miller is a former chief technologist for NASA. so “big thunk” is obviously a technical term for “cause of the end of the planet as we know it.” And yet, it doesn’t seem that NASA is too concerned about Apophis or the effects of the “big thunk.” On the other hand, Russia and China are. In 2011, researchers at China’s Tsinghua University proposed launching a spacecraft to knock Apophis onto a non-impact course and in 2016, Russian scientists announced plans to strike small near-Earth objects with ICBMs and one of the NEOs on the list was Apophis.
Do Russia and China know something about Apophis that we don’t? Are we willing to put our asteroid safety net in the hands of college students who are following an ex-NASA scientist who couldn’t come up with a better name than the ‘big thunk’?
Would he be upset if we thunk about listening to China and Russia instead?