Huge Asteroid Apophis Is Headed For Earth In 2029 And Scientists Can’t Wait

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Ten years from now, a huge 1,115-foot asteroid named after the Egyptian god of chaos will swing past Earth for a very close, but perfectly safe, encounter. Known as asteroid 99942 Apophis, the massive space rock will harmlessly approach our planet on a Friday the 13th — specifically, on April 13, 2029.

According to NASA, the upcoming brush with asteroid Apophis will truly be a memorable one. Its impressive size aside, the space rock is expected to make its way so close to our planet’s surface that it will pass within just 19,000 miles of Earth.

“That’s within the distance of some of our spacecraft that orbit Earth.”

In a 2013 report on the space rock’s future close approaches to Earth, NASA detailed that the 2029 visit of asteroid Apophis will be “the closest flyby of an asteroid of its size.”

“The April 13, 2029, flyby of asteroid Apophis will be one for the record books.”

If you’re partial to superstition, the impending close approach of the “god of chaos” asteroid, as 99942 Apophis has been dubbed by Newsweek, might send some chills down your spine. But for the scientists hoping to investigate the space rock, the fatidic date will have a completely opposite connotation, making it one very “lucky day,” notes Space.

As NASA officials pointed out in a news release issued earlier this week, the research community “couldn’t be more excited” about this once-in-a-lifetime chance to study a near-Earth asteroid coming so unprecedentedly close to the surface of our planet.

Asteroid Apophis (shown in yellow) will pass by Earth in 2029 within the distance that some satellites (shown in blue) orbit the planet; the purple line represents the International Space Station's orbit.Featured image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The Apophis close approach in 2029 will be an incredible opportunity for science,” Marina Brozović, a radar scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

“We’ll observe the asteroid with both optical and radar telescopes. With radar observations, we might be able to see surface details that are only a few meters in size.”

Given the rarity of this event, the international asteroid research community is already dreaming up plans on how to make the most of the looming flyby so as to study 99942 Apophis in as much detail as possible. While the space rock won’t be coming around for another 10 years, scientists are already putting their best ideas forward on how to glean as much data from the forthcoming asteroid flyby.

Gathered at the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference held by the International Academy of Aeronautics this week in College Park, Maryland, researchers have started to draw up plans for conducting a close-up study of asteroid Apophis to investigate its “size, shape, composition, and possibly even its interior,” detailed the NASA news release.

In addition, asteroid scientists and planetary defense experts are also debating whether it would be feasible to launch a spacecraft to Apophis to gather even more data on potentially hazardous asteroids.

Speaking at the conference on April 30, MIT planetary scientist Richard Binzel explained what all the fuss was about.

“The excitement is that an object this large comes this close about once per thousand years, so it’s all about, ‘What’s the opportunity?'”

First discovered in 2004, asteroid Apophis was classified as a potentially hazardous asteroid after original calculations indicated that the space rock had a 2.7 percent chance of hitting Earth during its 2029 flyby. After follow-up observations that served to refine its orbit, that scenario was completely ruled out – as well as the possibility that the asteroid might collide with our planet during its next close encounter, which is expected in 2036.

Asteroid Apophis imaged by the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory during its previous approach to Earth in January, 2013, when it passed within 9 million miles of our planet.Featured image credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS/MACH-11/MPE/ESAC

One of the thrilling things about the asteroid’s 2029 flyby is that the space rock will be visible to the naked eye during its closest approach. About 2 billion people should be able to see Apophis as it zooms past our planet on April 13, 2029, just before 6 p.m. ET. At the time, the asteroid “will be over the Atlantic Ocean – and it will move so fast that it will cross the Atlantic in just an hour,” notes NASA.

The animation below shows the path along Earth where Apophis will be visible during its close approach in 2029, highlighted in gray.

Studying the space rock is important not only in terms of scientific gain but also for planetary defense purposes, explained Paul Chodas, the director of NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies.

“Apophis is a representative of about 2,000 currently known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs),” Chodas said.

“By observing Apophis during its 2029 flyby, we will gain important scientific knowledge that could one day be used for planetary defense.”