- The massive space rock known as Apophis will pass by Earth several times in the upcoming decades.
- A collision with Earth has been ruled out for most of them, but one pass is still giving astronomers a reason to be nervous.
- When the rock approaches Earth in 2068 there’s a very slim chance it might hit us.
There are so many space rocks cruising around our Solar System that it’s hard to keep track of them, at least for those of us who don’t do it on a daily basis, but you’ve probably heard of the massive asteroid known as Apophis before. Apophis, also known as the “God of Chaos,” is an interesting object for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that astronomers haven’t been able to rule out the possibility that the rock may actually slam into Earth in the not-so-distant future.
As Gizmodo reports, the back-and-forth regarding the possibility that Apophis might hit Earth in 48 years’ time has been quite a rollercoaster. At one point it seemed clear that the asteroid wouldn’t pose a threat, but new research suggests there’s still a slim chance it might actually hit Earth.
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So, how did the forecast change? The researchers involved in the new study took into account a phenomenon called the Yarkovsky effect. It’s the ability of asteroids to actually speed up as they cruise through space. This is because asteroids like Apophis aren’t just dead chunks of rock, but contain different materials that can actually propel the rock. Radioactive material, for example, can seep out of the rock and give it a very slight “boost,” which can be enough to take it on a slightly different path and pose a danger to us or other planets.,
“Without taking Yarkovsky drift into account, Apophis is still a threatening object, just not in 2068,” Dave Tholen, co-author of the new work told Gizmodo in a statement. “With Yarkovsky taken into account, the 2068 impact scenario is still in play. Small, but non-zero.”
A non-zero chance sounds spooky, but it’s still a very, very small possibility. Percentage-wise, it’s roughly a 0.00067% chance that the asteroid could impact Earth. However, if the rock is incredibly lucky and humanity is incredibly unlucky, a collision would be devastating. Measuring over 300 meters across and packed with metal, the asteroid would cause an incredible amount of damage if it impacted Earth. The asteroid will make a couple of more distant passes of Earth before 2068, and the possibility of an impact during those passes have been ruled out, but not for 2068.