A new report suggests an asteroid named after the Egyptian God of Chaos, Apophis, may get uncomfortably close to Earth in 2068. The scientists tracking the asteroid have discovered that it has sped up, thanks to an orbital process called the Yarkovsky effect.
“The new observations we obtained with the Subaru telescope earlier this year were good enough to reveal the Yarkovsky acceleration of Apophis,” astronomer Dave Tholen, of the University of Hawaii, said in a statement. “[T]hey show that the asteroid is drifting away from a purely gravitational orbit by about 170 meters per year, which is enough to keep the 2068 impact scenario in play.”
Apophis, which Tholen and his team discovered in 2004, is scheduled to swing past Earth in 2029, too. Fortunately, calculations have shown there’s no chance it will slam into our planet then. During its April 13, 2029 close approach, Apophis will swing so close to Earth that the 1,000-foot-wide asteroid will pass between our planet and a network of communication satellites. Here’s the most unsettling part: It’ll be visible to the naked eye.
As for 2068, astronomers had previously ruled out the possibility that it could collide with Earth. The new observations, however, which the scientists presented at a virtual American Astronomical Society meeting earlier this year, have revealed a startling possibility: We can’t rule out a collision.
So why the change in orbit? Asteroids absorb sunlight as they tumble through the solar system. In order to maintain thermal equilibrium, an asteroid will emit that solar energy as heat. This generates a force that causes them to speed up and, in turn, change the asteroid’s orbit. Here’s more about the Yarkovsky effect:
NASA and other space agencies are constantly monitoring potentially hazardous objects for these orbit-altering effects. This is critical in the case of asteroids like Apophis, which are scheduled to sweep really close to Earth. Fortunately, we’re preparing for this exact scenario.
Next year’s DART mission will conduct a critical dress rehearsal in which a small spacecraft will slam into a tiny asteroid in an attempt to knock it off course. It’s only a dry run, but it will give the world’s space agencies heaps of data that could be used to build a deterrent for rogue asteroids that may suddenly find themselves on a collision course with Earth.