Last month (January 2011), the world was given a scare of apocalyptic proportions. A report from a Russian News agency warned the world that an asteroid, Apophis, was on a deadly rendezvous with planet Earth.
Word of this pending doom shot through the Internet world like a speeding comet. Soon, blogs and news agency around the world were spreading the word that April 13, 2036 – the “calculated” date of the impact - was going to be a very unlucky Sunday for humanity (even though this asteroid had a 99.9993% chance of missing Earth).
Since then, NASA has dismissed the report. Also, the Russian astronomer that was quoted in the original story, Leonid Sokolov of St. Petersburg, insisted that the journalist misquoted him, and that the chances of it hitting the Earth on the given date were extremely slim (more of the interview is here and here).
This revelation should have been the end of the story. Not quite. Now, there’s a report emerging of the possibility that other deadly asteroids have Earth in its path. In an alarming story from Salem-News.Com, two other asteroids were named as possible “Earth destroyers.”
Asteroid 2002 NT7 and Asteroid 1999 RQ36, along with Apophis, were singled out in the new article. Apophis was the smallest at 935 feet across. NT7, the largest, is estimated at 1.5 miles long. RQ36 is 1,837 feet. The additional Asteroids and their orbits have been known to scientific community for more than a decade (hence, the date given in their official designation).
THE OTHER TWO ASTEROIDS
2002 NT7 was believed to be on an impact course with Earth on February 1, 2019 until further observations and calculations from astronomers proved otherwise. This particular asteroid’s size and scope is frightening. While it is not the size of the one believed to have struck Earth 65 million years ago (that one was estimated to be six miles across), it can devastate and alter the Earth’s environment (not exactly evaporate a continent as the Salem-News.Com article suggested).
Despite the given date of this asteroid, the odds of it hitting are extremely slim. In 2002, the Near Earth Object (NEO) Program, a division of NASA meant to monitor NEOs or asteroids near Earth’s orbit, had ruled out a potential earth impact in 2019. They gave the odds of it hitting the planet at 1 out of 250,000 chances.
In fact, 2002 NT7 has been downgraded to a point that (as of February 13, 2011) it has been removed from the Impact Risk Page on NEO Program’s website. According to the website, the group was “able to rule out previous potential impacts as no longer consistent with the observation.” Still, this refers to 2019. Its next pass is predicted to be 2060, but nobody can calculate if it will impact the Earth at this point.
1999 RQ36 has been well observed over the years. Much smaller than NT7, and slightly larger than Apophis, this particular asteroid has a one in 1000 chance of hitting Earth… in 2182. What this means, according to the website Universe Today, is that there is a 99.97200000% chance RQ36 will completely miss Earth.
In the meantime, RQ36 is not an asteroid anyone is worrying about; instead, it’s something many scientists are anticipating to see. The asteroid has been a candidate for future spacecraft missions. One such program chosen for this asteroid is OSIRIS (Origins Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security). This program was selected by NASA in October 2006 and is designed to obtain a sample of RQ36 and return it to Earth.
“BUT NOT ZERO”
In his e-mail interview with astronomer and blogger, Phil Plait, Russian astronomer Sokolov mentioned the chances of Apophis hitting the Earth as being nearly impossible “but not zero.” In truth, the three asteroids have the potential to impact Earth. Gravity from other planets, including Earth’s can affect the orbits, creating the potential for disaster.
Also, there are 341 NEO identified by NASA’S NEO program. And, there are many astronomers who believe there are many more. This leaves the possibility of an impact from an undetected asteroid.
Although reports of the asteroids in the media have been misleading or inaccurate, these reports have opened the eyes of many to the notion that something needs to be done to protect the Earth from them.
As for now, one can be assured that life on earth will continue. The odds are in favor of it, even if the media doesn’t see it that way.
Atkinson, N. (2010): “Researchers Say Asteroid Has 1 in 1,000 Chance of Hitting Earth in 2182”: Universe Today: http://www.universetoday.com/69640/researchers-say-asteroid-has-1-in-1000-chance-of-hitting-earth-in-2182/
Yeomans, D. (2002): “Asteroid 2002 NT7: Potential Earth Impact in 2019 Ruled Out”: Near Earth Object Program: http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news133.html
Greene, Nick (retrieved 2011): “Asteroid on Collision Course with Earth”: About.Com: http://space.about.com/cs/asteroids/a/asteroidimpact.htm
Pournelle, J. (2003): “2002 NT7”: Chaos Manor Special Reports: Lucifer’s Hammer: http://www.jerrypournelle.com/reports/jerryp/hammer.html#hammer5
Aym, T. (2011) “Three Giant Asteroids Heading Toward Earth”: Salem-News.com: http://www.salem-news.com/articles/february132011/cosmic-billiardsta.php
Plait, P. (2011): “Repeat after me: Apophis is not a danger!”: Bad Astronomy: http://blogs.discovermagazine. com/badastronomy/tag/apophis/
“The Torino Impact Hazard Scale (retrieved 2011)”: NASA’s Near Earth Object Program: http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/torino _scale.html