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

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

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

  1. Why are they still getting billions of dollars for things that others are doing for just a fraction of the cost.(Xprize)
    Why dont the feds see that maybe this space agency needs a big overhaul.Maybe there monopoly on space exploration is over.

  2. To Daniel:

    Often when we report on breaking news there may be initial inaccuracies in the source material – this is the nature of “breaking news”. It takes some time for the facts to settle, but it’s the risk we take to get news onto UT as soon as it breaks. But I’m sure you already know this…

    I’ve been guilty of silly typos and using *unofficial* news sources, but we all update our stories as more information comes to light, inaccuracies are soon ironed out. Last time I looked, I didn’t think this was a problem.

    Thanks for bringing attention to our “totally nonsensical” reporting, but I am sure you’ll find a lot worse out there in the space blogosphere.


  3. Oh dear, Universe Today has once more fallen for a totally nonsensical story by a wire service without checking any facts. “I want to see the official news from NASA on this,” you write – hey, what about just asking them …?

    Well, this is what I did yesterday: Have a look at this detailled analysis of the strange events!

    In a nutshell: The risk for the 2036 Apophis impact is as low as ever (1 in 45,000). And both the science fair judges and the media screwed up big time …

  4. Yes, ours is a hectic business – but when a wire story wants you to believe that the impact probability of a pretty big asteroid has suddenly jumped up by a factor 100, with NASA concurring, wouldn’t the first thing you do is check the actual public NASA page which carries these numbers?

    I did that yesterday, the number was the old, low, one, so I sent one e-mail to the NEO Office, and within an hour or so I had Don Yeomans’ statement. The only reason I didn’t post it yesterday was that … I just couldn’t imagine in my wildest dreams that some %$$$%$ international news agency would pick up a story from a local German paper and broadcast it to the world without checking anything about its veracity.

    @ Fraser, you are in the task group for the IYA Portal to the Universe (as am I): Don’t today’s events make it obvious that considerable editorial oversight is necessary to run such a system and that you cannot rely on it working autonomously as was once hoped?

    By the way, a brief NASA statement – from Headquarters! – is now out …

  5. Daniel-

    Right after I posted this I came across your blog via NASA Watch, then came back and saw your comment. Yes, I’m feeling a little red-faced, but hopefully AFP is feeling it more. Thanks for your thorough investigation of this matter.

  6. I’m curious as to how an asteroid that lands in the Atlantic can possibly create “a thick cloud of dust”. I’m not a scientist. Am I missing something here? By the way, this is the first time I read you and I thoroughly enjoy your blog.

  7. This is the advantage of the Internet. We can update the story and put things right as quickly as possible. We’re pretty skeptical people, but there are some sources that we usually feel we can trust.

  8. I think this is the original article (in german) in “Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten”:

    “Bei seinen Berechnungen kam er auf eine Einschlagswahrscheinlichkeit von eins zu 450 und die NASA ließ der Europäischen Raumfahrt-Agentur ESA ausrichten, der Junge aus Potsdam habe recht.”

    I’m not so sure about my translation, but it’s something like:
    His calculations resulted in a probability of 1 to 450 and the NASA let the ESA report, that the boy from Potsdam were right.

    Another reference to the ‘Regionalausscheid’ “Jugend forscht”:

  9. To Cyberjack,
    Im not sure how familiar you are with impacts, but regardless of where a meteorite hits, there will be dust.

    An object travelling around 30,000km an hour hitting the ocean will burn up a significant amount of water, but in that time, at that speed, the meteor breaks up as well.

    Consider it like human jumping without a parachute. If he hits concrete, he goes splat, and at terminal velocity hitting water, you get a splat like concrete with a bit more give. Im not sure on the calcs of all this, but there is enough force being an impact to boil the water, which will in turn eject dust from the meteorite into the atmosphere.

  10. Just to continue poking that dead horse:
    If the kid supposed that the asteroid would be deflected by impacts with geo-synchronous satelites Suppose that Apophis” is about 320 m (1150 ft) long and an estimated mass of 4.6×1010 kg” and your little Comsat 98WestB weighs in at a puny, bully atracting ten metric tonnes The closure speed is many thousands of kilometers per hour.. There would be consequences if such a collision occured, but they will mostly be that folks in Borneo can’t see the Golf Channel and the Simpsons.
    The piffling amount of inertia given up by Apophis would undetectable.
    Here’s a thought? Why Not Catch It?
    Wouldn’t it be fun to catch it and put it in orbit around the moon? Errr…money being no object, of course, The perfect tourist destination, scientist’s playground, social icon, mining asset.

  11. Continuous editorial oversight would be a wonderful thing. I’d love to have an army of Harvard-trained fact checkers calling people and making sure we’ve got every thing exactly correct. But I can’t afford it. I’m one guy, working from his kitchen table in Vancouver – and a few freelancers helping out – making less money than almost any entry-level job you can imagine.

    We’re doing the best job that we can with the resources we have. Obviously, in hindsight, it would have been best to call NASA, verify the story, and scoop the wires with a good dose of skepticism and reality. Trust me, Nancy’s BS detector got ratcheted up today. But I’m going to keep on trusting the team to follow their instincts on stories and hone their skills. And if UT’s reputation needs to take a beating during that process, so be it.

    We made a mistake, got caught up in the hoopla, and we worked quickly to fix it and remain transparent with the readers. And it all happened autonomously by a responsible writer maintaining her journalistic integrity.

  12. “Wouldn’t it be fun to catch it and put it in orbit around the moon?”

    That would be cool!

  13. Hans — you’re spot on about the media, especially the international media, and their rampant anti-Americanism. Thank heaven we’ve got the blogosphere — eventually, if the lies are egregious enough, they get hammered flat by the (ahem) pajamahadeen, of whom I am proud to say I am one (out of about two googolzillion bazillion). And stories like this are like raw steaks thrown to a shark as far as the blogosphere is concerned, the hoax relatively easy to take down, and lots of fun going neener-neener at the perpetrators. Not so long ago the blogosphere wasn’t even a dream in a programmer’s eye — and now it’s a world-wide reality. So hang in there. Hoaxes will always be perpetrated, and the mainstream media will go for them hook, line, and sinker, especially if it puts the USA in a bad light, but now there’s a powerful hoax/antiAmericanism tool available to fight the good fight: the pajamahadeen. 🙂

  14. I can exactly tell you how things like this can happen.

    1. It all starts with a kind of prejudice called anti-Americanism.

    2. A simple equation was applied: NASA = USA.

    3. This Anti-Americanism implies that American institutions are liars.

    4. And to an adept the above point #3 is so obvious that even a child can see it.

    5. So the conclusion follows that the 13 year old child is right and therefore the “free” German press is commited to publish this without any further investigation.

    The free press is an assembly line for such bad behaviour. On April, 10th the German TV channel ARD broadcasted a story on drug addicts. But the interviews were faked by the interviewed person which afterwards identified himself as member of a group called “Kommando Tito von Hardenberg”. This case also made it obvious for all and everybody how rotten the media really are. The last severe case that happened in Germany a view month ago is analyzed in the book “Der Fall Eva Herman. Hexenjagd in den Medien” by Arne Hoffmann. But worse, even if caught, the campaign makers stick togehter and hold their sight of the world up against reality as long as even possible. Like conspirators.

    While in the past the “BILD” newspaper was the embodiment of an intentionally lying and cheating right press, meanwhile the majority of the personal of the media considers itself as left-winged. So the victim of the “free” press are still the same: the truth and the public. Only the intentions have changed a little bit.

    I would recommend to obligate everyone who starts working for the press or any other media to take part in an at least one year training in Karl Popper’s method of critical rationalism.

    Recommendation : “Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media” by Nick Davis.

  15. Chuck —
    Regarding your comment:
    “I agreed with the statement about checking facts when the news involves a potential risk to the population as a general rule, but to be fair, this risk isn’t really that immediate. 2029 is still more than 20 years away, so I can’t imagine anyone reading the incorrect story would have irrationally panicked about the end of the world. shrug* just my two cents I guess”

    The problem isn’t that scientists would panic — they are the least likely group to do that, and the most likely to check the “facts” given in the original article and then vociferously complain about the lack of such facts. The problem is the lay public, who, for lack of serious scientific training, might very well panic — or, after enough hoaxes, might figure whoever it is is crying wolf, and ignore *real* dangers when these are reported. The scientific community is *not* the only human group in the world, and it is everyone else, billions of people, whose reactions to things like this help determine how they vote and where they want their tax money — and, potentially, scientific grant money, or lack of it — invested.

  16. I’m sure I speak for many regular readers of UT when I say that I would rather read new stories as they come out, at the risk of them being subsequently shown to be inaccurate in some way – whereupon a correction can be made.

    I trust Fraser and the team to make the editorial judgements in these cases – and I think they do a pretty good job 99.9% of the time.

    It’s not like I’m paying for these news stories, but they certainly keep me informed and entertained during my coffee break.

    Good work guys

  17. When news involve announcement of potential risk to some population, it’s irresponsible not to check everything.

    From time to time inacuracies occur and thus disagreeing calculations, it’s the way that the issue was handled that was wrong.

    Nowadays the means of comunication can avoid these kind of public messes, it’s a matter of will… and being serious.

    Nuno G

  18. On the other hand, if you’re writing a article based on another news article, who can blame you to put some faith on the job that others have already done?

    I am always more prone to trust what i read (specialy in Universe Today) than to question everything.

    Fraser is doing a very good job.

    Keep it up.


  19. To Cyberjack & Steve;

    An object with an estimated mass of 4.6×1010 kg and travelling around 30,000km an hour hitting the ocean will do more than burn up a significant amount of water. It will bore all the way through to the bottom and creat a large crater. That’s where the massive amount of dust comes from.


  20. I agreed with the statement about checking facts when the news involves a potential risk to the population as a general rule, but to be fair, this risk isn’t really that immediate.

    2029 is still more than 20 years away, so I can’t imagine anyone reading the incorrect story would have irrationally panicked about the end of the world.

    *shrug* just my two cents I guess

  21. one think is certain a major asteroid will eventually enter in collision with planet earth whether its 2029 or a million years from then and whether it wipes out every form of life from the planet or not it wont make a wink of difference mother earth will continue revolving aroud its sun once a solar year around itself and through its cycle of the four seasons unconcerned.

  22. lldiaz, the Xprize contests haven’t even reached orbit. They have no significant payload capacity, and no ability to escape earths gravity to reach the moon or further out.

    Nasa on the other hand is heading back to the moon just after their probe checks out Pluto on it’s way to the Oort cloud. And if things go smoothly, we’ll have another probe on Mars very soon as well.

  23. In this article it says the Earth will suffer significant damage, dust will darken the sky indefinitely, it will cause tsunamis etc. but in another article from August 22nd, 2005 it states that it would cause no damage to the Earth, only to the impact site. Is this conclusion based on information we didn’t have in 2005?

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