Monday, April 20, 2009

Apophis (Rhymes with "Office")

Have you heard of Apophis? Chances are you haven't. And chances are, you probably won't have to worry about it for at least another 20 years. But when the shit goes down, you better be ready kid.

Apophis (official name: 99942 Apophis) is an asteroid -- technically a "Near-Earth Object (NEO) -- that NASA had predicted had a small chance (2.7%) of hitting the earth in year of our lord 2029. (I'm sure Miley Cyrus will still be a major star by then, so an asteroid hitting us might not be so bad.) It turns out that NASA has projected a zero-percent chance of this asteroid hitting us in 2029. But there is a loophole.

Or should I say, a "keyhole." Wikipedia defines "gravitational keyhole" thusly:
A gravitational keyhole, or resonance keyhole, is a small region of space that if an asteroid were to pass through it, its course would be altered due to Earth's gravity in a way that could cause such an asteroid to collide with the Earth on its next orbital pass.
It turns out that there is a small window that exists, whereby even though the asteroid will miss earth in 2029, if it passes through this gravitational keyhole, the asteroid will return to possibly hit earth in 2036. (On, yes that's right, Friday, April 13th.) And if THAT misses, it still might come back to hit us in 2037.

So here's what the nerds at NASA tells us...
  • The chances of this meteor hitting us in 2036 is actually 1 in 45,000. Plenty of lottery winners have beaten those odds. We'll actually know these odds better when we get a better look at it in 2013.
  • If it misses in 2036, it's odds of hitting us the following year is 1 in 12.3 million.
  • If it hit us, it would be like being hit by 65,000 nuclear bombs. [source]
  • Impact would be equivalent to 880 megatons of TNT. The largest man-made explosion was created by Tsar Bomba (aka the Emperor's Bomb), detonated by Kruschev's Russia in 1961. Its impact: 50 megatons. The Tunguska Event -- the worst asteroid catastrophe in the last century -- was 5 megatons. The eruption of Krakatoa was 200 megatons.
  • Apophis is the ancient Egyptian god of destruction. But the geeks who named it got it from the bad guy on "Stargate SG-1." Nerds. They couldn't have called it Cylon?
  • The asteroid -- when it does approach us in 2029 -- will actually be closer to the earth than most satellites that broadcast TV shows and space radio.
So where would it hit?
The result is a narrow corridor a few miles wide, called the path of risk, and it includes most of southern Russia, across the north Pacific (relatively close to the coastlines of California and Mexico), then right between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, crossing northern Colombia and Venezuela, ending in the Atlantic, just before reaching Africa. Using the computer simulation tool NEOSim, it was estimated that the hypothetical impact of Apophis in countries such as Colombia and Venezuela, which are in the path of risk, would have had more than 10 million casualties.
Believe it or not, the nerds at NASA are actually trying to come up with "Armageddon"/"Deep Impact" scenarios to knock the asteroid off target with man-made methods. Some of them include (and I swear I'm not making these up):
  • Using a nuclear bomb to destroy the asteroid (which would actually be the worst plan because it would create shrapnel-like smaller asteroids that collectively would have a much higher risk of hitting earth).
  • Commandeering another no-risk asteroid to "bump" it out of the way, like curling.
  • Creating a space ship with "lasers" and then using these "lasers" to force the trajectory of the asteroid out of harm's way.
  • Using "solar sails" which would use light -- LIGHT! -- to change the asteroid's orbit.
  • Set off a nuclear bomb close to the asteroid, so that it does not make direct impact, but does push the asteroid off course.
  • Send up a fleet of laser-wielding ships that can stay up in space at all times and deflect asteroids on an ad hoc basis.
  • The most well-liked by some scientists: a "gravity tractor," which is basically putting a ship up in space, whose gravitational pull will yank the asteroid out of harm's way. (This would be used AFTER a kinetic impact, where a spacecraft of some kind bangs into the asteroid).
Part of the problem, of course, is the question of WHO is going to take the lead on something like this? I'm guessing even if the U.S. sent a spacecraft up in the air, Hugo Chavez would still be a total dick to us.

Anyway, long story short, we're all gonna be dead in 2036. God bless!

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