Astronomers Refute News Story of a Killer Asteroid Hitting the Earth in 2036

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A Russian scientist who was quoted in a news article claiming to have predicted the exact date an asteroid will impact Earth is now stating that he was misquoted by the news organization that filed the story.

The story titled “Russian astronomers predict Apophis-Earth collision in 2036” was originally written and released by the Russian news service “Ria Novosti” on January 26, 2011.

It stated in its first line that Russian astronomers may have pinpointed the date of April 13, 2036 (exactly seven years after its closest pass by Earth) as the day when the Apophis asteroid may slam into the Earth.

The original story created a buzz on the Internet with numerous news agencies and blogs picking up the story. The problem, however, is that this story, and its flashy headline, has been deemed inaccurate or misleading by those who regularly chart asteroids and near-earth objects.

Several scientists around the globe, including those employed by NASA, have called the report inaccurate. One American astronomer, author, and TV host Bill Plait harshly criticized the report. He wrote about the original news story on his popular blog, “Bad Astronomy”, calling it “100% utter crap.”

Still, the harshest criticism for the article came from the Russian scientist who was quoted in the original article.

The accusations emerged from an e-mail interview Plait had with Leonid Sokolov, a member of the International Astronomical Union and professor at St. Petersburg State University in Russia. The interview appeared in the article written by Plait and published on “Bad Astronomy.”

“This is ‘bad mass communication’, journalist misunderstanding, no ‘bad astronomy’,” Dr. Sokolov wrote as a response to Plait’s inquiry about the original story. “The probability of Apophis collision in 2036 is very-very small, but not zero, the probability of Apophis collision after 2036 is very-very-very small, but not zero.”

Plait, who has written extensively about Apophis and other near Earth objects, echoed Sokolov’s sentiment. He wrote that the odds of Apophis hitting the Earth are “something like one in135,000.”

Still, Plait and Sokolov point out that the possibility of it hitting the Earth exists, albeit, very slim. Apophis is expected to pass near Earth in 2029, possibly dipping below the orbits of several man-made satellites. According to Plait’s article, it will have to pass through a keyhole – a tiny region of space above Earth – to have its orbit altered enough to hit Earth on next pass in 2036.

“We can’t know for sure if the rock will pass through the keyhole or not in 2029,” Plait wrote, “but we can apply statistics and calculate that minuscule 0.0007% chances. And maybe it’s better to of it as a 99.9993% chance it’ll miss.”

Another part of the story that was contested by Sokolov and Plait was the possibility of Apophis disintegrating.

The original article – again, quoting Sokolov - reported that the Earth’s gravitational pull may cause Apophis to break up and possibly hit the earth as if it was shot by a giant shotgun.

Sokolov wrote in his e-mail: “In my talk I have spoken about scattering of possible trajectories of Apophis after approach in 2029 and possible approach in 2036, not disruption of asteroid!”

Plait also wrote about this scenario by stating it’s “not a totally crazy idea” if this particular asteroid was not solid (or piles of rubble held together by their own gravity).

“If they’re big enough, and pass close enough to Earth,” Plait wrote, “our gravity could pull them apart.”

However, he points out a problem of this happening.

“Apophis is only 250 meters across; this is on the small side for this to happen. So why would the [Russian] article say it might fly apart?”

Apophis first came to astronomer’s attention when it was discovered by NASA in 2004.  On December 23 of that year, a NASA report mentioned there was a 1 in 233 chance that it will impact Earth in 2029.  As a result, it was placed in the Torino scale rating of 2, and later, moved to 4 with an estimate of a 1 in 62 chance.

Torino Impact Scale rates the probability or dangers of a near-earth object hitting Earth. The objects are rated from 1 to 10 with 10 being the “most probable”. Apophis was the first asteroid to be placed on this scale.

By 2009, the probability of it impacting the Earth decreased drastically.

“The odds are so low,” Plait wrote. “I worry more about Snooki getting her own three-movie contract.”


Bryner, Michelle (Feb. 7, 2011): “Will Apophis Hit Earth in 2036? NASA Rejects Russian Report”: via Yahoo News:

Plait, Phil (2011): “Repeat after me: Apophis is not a danger!”: Bad Astronomy:

“The Torino Impact Hazard Scale (retrieved 2011)”: NASA’s Near Earth Object Program:

“Russian Astronomers Predict Apophis-Earth Collision (Jan.26, 2011)”: Ria Novosti:

More about this author: Dean Traylor

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