According to Russian media, the Russians are planning to launch and attach a satellite to the Apophis Asteroid as it passes near earth in 2029. The goal of that mission is to track and better calculate the true path of the asteroid, to better determine the true odds of an Earth impact in 2036. (2)
In 2004, astronomers discovered that the Apophis Asteroid, on a path almost directly toward Earth, had a probability of 2.7% that it would strike Earth in 2029.
Most experienced astronomers don’t usually get very concerned with such odds, because subsequent calculations once the view and the path of the asteroid becomes more apparent typically decrease, not increase.
That is exactly what happened. According to NASA, additional observations determined that there was no chance of a direct Earth impact in 2029, but there were odds of an impact in 2036 of 1 in 45,000 (1). Then, on October 7th of 2009, Dwayne Brown of NASA released a press statement that the odds of impact in 2036 dropped once again from 1 in 45,000 to 1 in 250,000.
Regardless, the Russians are not taking any chances, as the Russian Academy of Sciences reports that the satellite mission, “…could be started for implementation from 2015.” (3)
Chicken Little and Skeptics Fight Over the Odds
Through the years, there has been a regular back and forth battle between alarmist media reports about the potential for the 2036 impact, and astronomers that say the odds are ridiculously low and that panicking at this point is completely uncalled for.
One example of such a report came in February of 2011, when the Huffington Post reported a statement from Professor Leonid Sokoliv of St. Petersburg State University who told reporters that the “likely collision” of the Apophis asteroid would take place on April 13, 2036. (4)
Phil Plait, the creator of the skeptic website Bad Astronomy (one of my own personal favorite sites, I should add), immediately lambasted the Huffington Post for its alarmist article that, “interlace it [the odds of impact] with a lot of doomsday stuff.”
Phil proves the doomsday attitude of the Huffington article by pointing out the use of a graphic illustration of the potential impact using a simulation with an asteroid measuring 500 miles across. The Apophis asteroid is only slightly wider than two football fields.
Phil explains his beef with such articles:
“While an Apophis impact would suck (if it happened, which it almost certainly won’t), it would not rip the crust of the planet off and eject it into space, leaving behind a boiling, seething mass of lava and killing every thing down on Earth to the last bacterium.” (5)
To its benefit, the Huffington Post actually updated its original article with corrected information, and even linked to Phil’s article so that readers could stand to benefit from an accurate description of what such an impact would really look like.
The Russians Want Better Odds
While NASA maintains it’s stance that the odds of impact for the Apophis asteroid in 2036 is only 1 in 250,000, Russian scientists base their calculations on the possibility of Apophis entering the “gravitational keyhole” during it’s near-pass by Earth in 2029.
The keyhole is what astronomers call a small region of space near Earth where the gravitational field of the Earth could affect the path of Apophis just enough so that the odds of impact in 2036 increase significantly. NASA’s approach since 2009 has been to take a “wait and see” attitude. The Russians, however, have decided to be a bit more proactive by developing a satellite radio beacon that they will attempt to “attach” to the asteroid as it passes within about 36,000 miles from Earth in 2029.
The radio beacon will transmit exact trajectory data while attached to the asteroid, providing the Russians with much clearer data as to the orbit and future path of the asteroid.
If the asteroid does pass through the gravitational keyhole and its orbit changes from what NASA scientists have already calculated, the odds could potentially change at that point. Whether the odds for impact in 2036 increase significantly enough to make it a real threat remains to be seen.
It is a mystery that will likely not have a clear answer until after 2029.