Astronomers have been playing cat-and-mouse with the asteroid 99942 Apophis for nearly two decades.
Six months after its discovery in June 2004, dynamicists calculated that it had a scary 1-in-20 chance of striking Earth in 2029. Then, thanks to more observations, they realized it would sail by safely on that pass but threaten our planet in 2036 instead. Now there’s no danger of a collision in 2036 — radar range measurements ruled that out several years ago — but an ever-so-slight chance of impact remains possible in 2068.
All this number-crunching is of much more than academic interest. With a diameter of roughly 350 meters (not quite ¼ mile), Apophis would cause devastating destruction to whatever region on Earth it might hit. So it is in our planet’s best interest to know exactly where this big, dangerous rock will be for the foreseeable future.
That’s why so many astronomers are turning their attention and instrumentation to Apophis this week. It is passing by at the very safe distance of about 16.9 million km (10.5 million miles) on March 6th at 1:15 Universal Time. And although it’ll be closest during evening hours for eastern North America, Apophis will be only 16th magnitude at best and thus a challenging telescopic target.
Still, the ongoing flyby is the final “dress rehearsal” before this potentially hazardous asteroid skims some 31,600 km (19,650 miles) of Earth’s surface on (Friday) April 13, 2029. So observers are looking to firm up what’s known about Apophis before the “big show” 8 years from now.
What is Apophis Really Like?
For example, radar maps obtained during a somewhat-closer visit in late 2012 reveal that Apophis has an irregular, somewhat elongated shape. But telescopic measurements of its light curve showed that the asteroid is probably tumbling slowly, rotating every 263 ± 6 hours but precessing around its spin axis every 30.6 hours.
Observers hope to improve their knowledge of the body’s spin state in the coming days, but the loss of Arecibo Observatory and its unmatched radar capability will hamper that effort. Instead, radar studies will be led by astronomers using NASA’s big 70-m (230-foot) Goldstone dish in California in combination with the 100-m Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. The hope, notes Lance Benner (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), is to refine the asteroid’s orbit and maybe to obtain coarse images to improve knowledge of the spin state and shape.
It would be a big plus to nail down the asteroid’s size and shape, which in turn would improve estimates of its mass. NASA’s NEOWISE spacecraft will sweep over Apophis and measure its brightness at the infrared wavelength of 4.6 microns and perhaps 3.4 microns. Those measurements, combined with visible-light photometry from ground-based telescopes, should lead to a more accurate diameter.
Even better, notes deputy principal investigator Joe Masiero (Caltech), NEOWISE might yield a measurement of the asteroid’s thermal inertia, key to understanding the nature of its surface. Right now, observers only know Apophis to be a uniform gray overall. But is it rocky or deeply dusty? Do lighter and darker patches cover its surface?
Getting a better baseline of these characteristics now will be crucial to observations planned for 2029. During that super-close pass, dynamicists expect that the gravitational pull of Earth will do more than bend Apophis’s trajectory by 28° and yank it onto a new orbit. There’s also a good chance that terrestrial tides will alter the asteroid’s spin and maybe shift some of its surface material — important clues to the state of its interior.
Tracking the Yarkovsky Effect
Dynamicists now realize that the orbits of small rocky bodies can be slowly change just by the power of sunlight. When sunlight is absorbed by a rotating object and then reradiated as heat in some other direction, the result is a gentle but persistent nudging (generally called the Yarkovsky effect) that over many years can alter the object’s orbit appreciably. Predictions of its location in the distant future — especially if it has some chance of striking Earth — can be thrown off by this dynamical wild card.
In principle, a tumbling Apophis should be good news, because the Yarkovsky effect would become randomized and ultimately alter the orbit very little. But extremely precise positional measurements observations made a year ago by David Tholen (University of Hawai’i) and others with the Subaru Telescope show that Apophis is in fact drifting away from a purely gravitational orbit by about 170 meters (560 feet) per year — which, Tholen points out, is “enough to keep the 2068 impact scenario in play.”
So it’s no surprise that Tholen and many other astronomers worldwide held a dedicated 3-day Apophis workshop in December and have mounted an extensive campaign to observe Apophis by any means possible during this month’s fleeting flyby. Even dedicated amateurs are involved, as they try to record the asteroid’s split-second passage in front an 8th-magnitude star in Hydra on the night of March 6–7.
And even if you’re not equipped to track down Apophis as it slips by Earth, you can join the hunt vicariously thanks to Gianluca Masi’s Virtual Telescope, which will track the asteroid in real time beginning at 0:00 UT on March 6th (Thursday at 7:00 p.m. EST, 4:00 p.m. PST).