This past weekend, a giant asteroid named Apophis zoomed by Earth at a comfortable distance of over 10 million miles. Its next pass on April 13, 2029 will be a different story. It’s estimated to pass at a distance of only 19,000 miles from earth, much closer than the moon (which is about 239,000 miles away) and even closer that some of our satellites (which hover at about 22,000 miles). Scientists, at this time, do not believe it will hit Earth, but may travel through a “gravitational keyhole” or what I like to consider an Earth hug that sets up an uncertain future. Space is the ultimate serial killer, indiscriminate and always comes back with more trouble.
Apophis, named after the Greek God of Chaos, is massive at over 67 million tons, bigger than the Eiffel Tower, and almost as tall the the Empire State Building. It’s massive and while scientists do not think it’s a planet killer, it can still cause a lot of damage. Landing in the ocean might trigger large tsunamis for nearby coasts, and hitting land would be equivalent to a blast of 880 million tons of TNT (65,000 times more powerful that the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima). A collision would also send an air blast across the surface for several miles breaking windows and toppling people over (this was well demonstrated in the movie Greenland). Fault lines could also be triggered and cause earthquakes that could be felt for thousands of miles. Other possibilities from an asteroid strike include dust and smoke rising up unto the atmosphere, blocking the sunlight, and triggering a temporary winter.
The 2029 fly-by may alter the orbit of Apophis and increase the chance of a collision on April 12, 2068. But much can happen to the asteroid in deep in our galaxy from gravitational tugs, drift caused by heat of the sun, speed changes, or other asteroid collisions. If not, human intervention may be needed. Some have proposed detonating the asteroid, but gravity may pull the fragments back together. Some suggest detonating a bomb near the asteroid to change its course. Others suggest we find a way to slow down the asteroid to avoid its encounter with earth (where both orbits intersect). This may be more difficult considering Apophis is traveling at a speed of almost 20 miles a second, and speeds up as it approaches Earth. Surely, scientists have plenty of time to figure it out. So for now, we as the human race sit, wait and watch the sky in wonder. At least we know of Apophis, and are actively tracking the 20,000 other near earth objects. But what about the ones we don’t know about? Late in 2020, we had a very mysterious interstellar asteroid pop into Earth’s neighborhood without much warning and its zoomed right out without much fuss. (I’ll cover this deep space interloper soon.) But what else is lurking out there in the dark, empty void? If you truly want to have never ending nightmares, take a look at the video from MetalBallStudios below to see the size of other known asteroids. If the Greenland movie was indication, it might be better not to know, and just go about living your day-to-day life. Another reason to heed the saying: Cherish your yesterdays, dream your tomorrows and live your todays.