Latest News on Apophis: 13 -year-old Boy Corrects NASA’s Estimates of Earth Impact — Not! (Update)

by Nancy Atkinson on April 16, 2008

Annimation of Apophis.  Image Credit:  Osservatorio Astronomico Sormano
Update: It turns out this story is a fabrication and AFP didn’t check the facts with NASA as I suspected. According to the blog Cosmos4u, they talked with Don Yeomans at NASA’s NEO office and this is what Yeoman’s said about the news story of a 13-year old boy correcting NASA’s estimates of Apohpis impacting earth: “We have not corresponded with this young man and this story is absurd, a hoax or both. During its 2029 Earth close approach, Apophis will approach the Earth to about 38,900 km, well inside the geosynchronous distance at 42,240 km. However, the asteroid will cross the equatorial belt at a distance of 51,000 km – well outside the geosynchronous distance. Since the uncertainty on Apophis’ position during the Earth close approach is about 1500 km, Apophis cannot approach an Earth satellite. Apophis will not cross the moon’s orbital plane at the Moon’s orbital distance so it cannot approach the moon either.”

Also, the scientist mentioned in AFP’s story said he wasn’t conferred with either by the news agency. So don’t give any heed to this story that has been running amok around the internet.

But here’s our story on this as it originally ran: Here’s a story that supports the value of science fairs. And it also makes one wonder where else NASA’s decimal points might be off by a couple of places. One caveat on this news piece, however: as far as I know there hasn’t been an official NASA press release on this.

Reportedly, a 13-year-old German schoolboy doing research for a science competition found errors in NASA’s estimates on the chances of the asteroid Apophis colliding with Earth. The boy, Nico Marquardt used data from the Institute of Astrophysics in Potsdam to calculate that there was a 1 in 450 chance that the Apophis asteroid will collide with Earth. NASA had previously estimated the chances at only 1 in 45,000, but according to an AFP news release, NASA now acknowledges the kid is right. (Actually, no they don’t.)

Nico took into consideration the risk of Apophis running into one or more of the 40,000 satellites orbiting Earth during its path close to the planet on April 13, 2029. Satellites in geosynchronous orbit travel at 3.07 kilometers a second (1.9 miles), at up to 35,880 kilometers above earth — and the Apophis asteroid will pass by earth at a distance of 32,500 kilometers. If the asteroid strikes a satellite in 2029, that could change its trajectory making it hit earth on its next orbit in 2036.

Still, 1 in 450 is pretty long odds. But the odds of Apophis hitting Earth seem to change like the tide. At first, in 2004 when the asteroid was first discovered, the odds were estimated at about 1 in 233. Later it went down to 1 in about 40, and even later still it went up to 1 in 7,143,000. Obviously, scientists are still refining the 2029 Apophis orbit.

Apophis is about 320 m (1150 ft) long and an estimated mass of 4.6×1010 kg.

AFP says both NASA and Marquardt agree that if the asteroid does collide with earth, the ball of iron and iridium “will crash into the Atlantic Ocean.” OK – that puts up a red flag right there on this news report. Right now, it’s fairly long odds that the asteroid will hit the Earth – how can anyone say exactly where it will hit?

The news piece goes on to say the shockwaves from the impact would create huge tsunami waves, destroying both coastlines and inland areas, “whilst creating a thick cloud of dust that would darken the skies indefinitely.” (Gotta love that “whilst” stuff.)

This is a nice story as far as a little kid correcting big NASA, but I want to see the official news from NASA on this.

Original News Source: AFP

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Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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