Asteroid collision is ‘still a threat’

Earth still faces a small but real risk of impact by an asteroid named after a god of destruction, experts are warning. The space rock – called 99942 Apophis – could hit us with the force of 65,000 atom bombs and wipe out a country.

Nasa impression of an asteroid strikeI previously reported that Earth had been given the all-clear but a report in the US magazine Popular Mechanics suggests I was premature.

Astronomers say they don’t have enough data to rule out a collision with the 25 million-ton asteroid even though it is more than two years since it was discovered.

The problem is that the 820ft-wide cosmic missile, hurtling through space at more than 28,000mph, will get two chances to smash into us.

And although scientists believe it should just miss us the first time, they still cannot say if it will collide seven years later. That is because the first close encounter, on Friday 13th of April, 2029, will have an unpredictable effect on the deadly asteroid’s orbit.

Apophis will probably fly past us at less than a tenth the distance of the Moon – closer than Sky’s TV satellites – appearing like a bright star crossing the night sky.

But the asteroid, named after the ancient Egyptian god of darkness and destruction, will pass through a “gravitational keyhole” if it flies by at a distance of 18,893 miles, Popular Mechanics says.

That will put the Earth squarely in the crosshairs for a potentially catastrophic impact on April 13, 2036. Scientists tracking Apophis visually and with radar say there is a 45,000-to-one risk of it going through that keyhole.

Former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, 71, is campaigning for NASA to launch an Armageddon-style mission to deflect the asteroid. He said: “We need to act. If we blow this, it’ll be criminal.”

But don’t panic. It seems we have the time and the means to handle this threat. Experts say a spaceprobe would only need to nudge the asteroid off course by about a mile to ensure that it avoided striking Earth in 2036.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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