Apophis Asteroid May Destroy Some Satellites In 2029

The deadly asteroid Apophis is safely passing by Earth today, more than 14.5 million kilometres from our home planet. Next time, we won't be so lucky. On April 13, 2029, Apophis will come so close that it may destroy satellites in orbit.

The European Space Agency's Herschel space observatory has acquired new images of the asteroid and their new data is conclusive.

First, it's much bigger than NASA's previous estimation. According to the new images, this rocky beast has a diameter of 325 metres, with a margin of error of ±15 metres. According to team leader Thomas Müller of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, "the 20 per cent increase in diameter, from 270m to 325m, translates into a 75 per cent increase in our estimates of the asteroid's volume or mass."

What that means is if it hits Earth, its destructive power will be much higher than what scientists originally expected. Based on previous data, NASA estimated an impact of 510 megatons for Apophis. That's more than two times the energy released by the Krakatoa eruption of 1883, an event that changed Earth's global climate for five years.

While scientists have not released a new estimate, the 75 per cent mass increase may bring its power closer to NASA's earlier estimations of 880 megatons — about 17 Tsars, the biggest nuclear bomb ever created.

The good news (!) is that Apophis is still small enough not to kill us all, but it can disrupt life on the planet for a few decades (click here to watch Neil DeGrasse talking about the effects of an Apophis impact in California). For comparison, the Chicxulub asteroid released about 100,000,000 megatons when it triggered the mass extinction event that supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs.

RELATED READING: Watch this video to see what will happen if another Chicxulub-sized asteroid hits Earth.

The 2029 Pass

In 2029 we'll be safe from Apophis mayhem too. The asteroid will not hit Earth then, say astronomers, but it "will pass within 36,000 kilometres of Earth's surface, closer even than the orbits of geostationary satellites."

This means that, while our pale blue dot would be spared, our highly populated constellation of satellites may suffer some casualties. It will be bad if it happens, but not as bad as NASA's initial estimation of 2.7 per cent chance of impact.

Nobody knows exactly if a satellite collision may occur. Space is awfully big, but there are plenty of satellites out there. Enough that it's not crazy to think that some of them may be wiped out as we watch Apophis marching through the night sky.

What May Happen in 2036

Scientists can't tell what will happen in the following pass in 2036. According to the latest analysis, there is a 1 in 250,000 probability of impact. It's extremely low, but still higher than the odds of being hit by lightning. That's why the Russians are considering a mission to deflect it — with Bruce Willis's character played by Sean Connery as Captain Marko Ramius. [ESA]

WATCH MORE: Science & Health News


    It's understandable that a 1:250000 chance of impact would lead to consideration of a mission to deflect the asteroid, but shouldn't the potential destruction of satellites be enough to consider this asteroid a candidate for such a mission? We really don't need any more debris in orbit, it's hard enough to track all of it as it is.

      The odds of it actually hitting a satellite are astronomically low - like win the lottery twice low. To put it into perspective, there are about 200 geosynchronous satellites a few meters wide, distributed across 5 billion or so cubic kilometers in a shell around the earth. A 300m widesatellite will intersect that shell twice as it passes through. There is also a high probability that any debris from a collision would be captured by the asteroid or knocked out of orbit. Finally there is a significant (by comparison) likelihood that it will actually pass further away and miss the orbital zone completely. So you wouildn't spend 100s of millions or billions of dollars if that was the only risk.

      The likelihood of the orbit being off enough for it to hit eath is much, much higher.

        Pretty sure someone always wins the lottery...even twice!

          Are you saying there's 6 billion Apophis'??

            Here's hoping when it hits a satellite, it doesn't get shunted into orbit! Could you imagine?? Oh the humanity!

    I wonder if there's a chance that it will capture some satellites on that rendezvous.

      As in capture in orbit?
      It's velocity will be too high and It's gravitational 'pull' to small I'd imagine.

    Is it entirely out of the question to capture it in orbit and use it for the top end to a space elevator..?

      for a space elevator it would need a fairly constant speed the meteorite would move away as it seed up and slow down the further away it got falling back towards earth until it gained more speed

        Not if they inserted it into a proper geosynchronous orbit. If they could capture it in the first place, they could certainly put into a true geosynchronous orbit just like any satellite. Capturing asteroids has been a scientific possibility for decades, it's only the technology that is lacking, and by then that shouldn't be an issue.

        Last edited 11/01/13 11:28 am

          Theoretically, no problem. Practically, probably not. You need to be able to decelerate 30 billion kg from 30km/sec down to around 3km/sec while it is in the orbital zone. I'm not going to calculate it, but it will probably be similar to the impact energy ~800 megatons or so, and that's assuming perfect efficiency in converting the energy into acceleration of the asteroid, as opposed to heating it or being radiated to space.

    If there is a mission to destroy this asteroid, shouldn't now be the best time? All we have to do is shoot a couple of missiles after it zips past earth?

    Where has this article got the odds of '1 in 250,000' for an impact in 2036?
    "The impact odds as they stand now are less than one in a million, which makes us comfortable saying we can effectively rule out an Earth impact in 2036,” Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office, said in a statement.

    When will the April 13th people come out? It's on Friday!

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