In case you missed the news last summer that we’re all gonna die gonna die gonna die — relax, Spazzy — we’re not. At least not, probably, from 99942 Apophis, the near-Earth asteroid that briefly held a coveted “4” on the Torino Impact Scale, which designates the likelihood that we’re all gonna die gonna die gonna die gonna die from a given near-earth object.
Apophis, which was named for the Egyptian god who tried to assassinate the Sun during its passage through the sky each day, is making a close approach to Earth in 2029, and a “4” means that upon that passage there is greater than a 1% chance that Apophis would impact Earth and cause vast destruction on a countrywide scale — scouring most of of the United States, say, or wiping out life in North Africa, or turning Poland into a lake of seething lava. Fer instance.
After closer observations and a whole lot of number crunching, astronomers downgraded Apophis to a “1” on the Torino Scale, which means no impact event for us, with a slightly higher chance that its close approach to Earth in ’29 (closer than many communication satellites) would perturb its orbit so that it bitch-slapped us on a subsequent passage, in 2036. Still not much chance of that, but enough to keep us Apocalypse nerds fidgeting.
Enter the UK company Astrium, which is competing for a $50K space exploration development prize from the US-based Planetary Society, as reported today (tomorrow, actually, damn that Greenwich Mean Time) by the BBC. Astrium’s plan is to land an unmanned spacecraft called Apex on Apophis during its close approach in 2029. For the subsequent three years, Apex would collect data on Apophis’s “size, spin, composition and temperature,” giving scientists more data with which to calculate the chance of an impact, and its likely result.
The idea isn’t so much to prevent an impact event from Apophis in 2036 — which is considered very unlikely at this point. Rather, the goal is to get more information about near earth objects in general, with an eye toward fueling future plans for deflecting a future object that looks like it might have Earth’s name on it.
Apocalypse geeks as old as I am may remember a season of hysteria on such cable television stations like the History Channel, Discovery Science, etc, ’round about 2000 and early 2001, shortly after the Millennium Bug didn’t murder us all as we all sipped Martini & Rossi. Back then, it seemed like every other hour featured yet another documentary on impact events, in which TV producers trotted out scientists who would say things like what British MP Lembit Opik told the BBC today in relation to the Astrium story: “The question isn’t whether Earth is hit by an asteroid — it is when.”
Truer words were never spoken, Lembit old chap, but the probabilities involved in such events — Apophis included — often boggle the mind of average Joes and Janes, as does the fact that Bruce Willis and a nuclear warhead might just piss the thing off (as they’d piss off most of us).
Of course, a guaranteed planet killer, whether in 100,000 or 100 million years, makes for hella good television, which is why it shows up on pay-for-play TV and in cheese-ass movies from the late Clinton years. Oh, yes. Remember when global death came from above? I grow nostalgic.
Image from NASA.gov, via Wikipedia.