Apophis is heading our way
What appears to be a lightly bright object in the glint of an astronomer's telescope sits silvery and stark on the printed astronomical photo of the stars. It was printed from the astronomical log in NASA several years ago as one more sample in thousands of produced filaments in a hectic scientific schedule to map our solar system; and measure the trajectories of the preposterously large abundance of asteroids that traverse Earth's orbital pattern in a multitudinous cyclical rotation. The computer that printed this particular image sits in the sprawling NASA campus in Houston, Texas where the Near Earth Object Programme (NEOP) fulfils its ongoing battle to protect our planet. The silvery image is an asteroid, not particularly large as these celestial bodies go, but of a somewhat more immediate nature to Earth's mortal inhabitants: Namely, that Apophis is on a collision course for our tiny blue planet.
Most computations announce a 1 – 45,000 chance that Apophis will make a direct hit upon earth's surface, and calculate that this would take place on the 13th of April 2036. It would most likely hit somewhere in the Pacific Ocean east of Siberia, engulfing the entire pacific allotment of island chains, and pounding an enormous tsunami towards the Californian coast line. This would, of course, wreak desolation on the American western sea board and for miles inland. It would not, however, consist of a ‘global killer' as the reference goes, but it could enormously damage the impacted area in the pacific. Life in this quadrant of Earth would be obliterated and as the impact residue rotated across the globe, it would block essential sunlight from reaching a number of regions across the world. The resulting ‘winter' would be devastating.
Scientists hold a very limited selection of ways to deal with apocalyptic asteroid activity. Most avenues involve the creation of a deflecting mechanism, but do not go too far into an explanation as to how this would be completed. It has become clear that a nuclear weapon would be very unlikely to have the required impact as it would almost certainly duplicate the threat by forming several asteroids from the one core celestial figure. The fear with this approach is that the global damage would be highly unpredictable.
A more favoured option, with many scientists, is to build a large space vehicle that could be placed in the sweeping path of the asteroid which would then form a gravitational connection and force the asteroid off its aligned trail and hence out of its approach vector with Earth. This gravitational ‘traction' would not need to be much as asteroids criss-cross the solar system in long looping passages and would pass close to Earth several times before the impact would occur. In the case of Apophis its pass in the spring of 2029 would be, it is hoped, sufficient time to force a change of direction.
The hunt for asteroids of this magnitude is a fundamental aspect of the new approach to the space program being initiated by NASA. With the down-scaling of its orbital fleet the world's largest grouping of astrophysicists has moved to inform their theoretical designs for interstellar activity with a series of programs monitoring the travel of the celestial bodies, beginning with those in near trajectories to Earth's spiralling rotations. The tracking of these objects across the solar system is an extremely difficult process. But first locating the relevant bodies is an even more enormous task. Roughly, only 4% of the sky is monitored with any real significant completeness, the rest being explored with only a modicum of accuracy, which equates to a disturbingly low possibility of locating all the dangerous objects out there. It was this gap in mankind's ability to protect her planet that lead to NASA's Near Earth Object Programme and thus has begun the reinvigoration of astrological tracking sciences, where new methods appear with surprising regularity.
There have, of course, been a large number of direct hits upon our planet right throughout its history. Scientists have spent much of the twentieth century attempting, with differing degrees of success, to prove that an earlier grouping of dinosaurs where extinguished by a rogue asteroid. Smaller objects have pummelled the earth following that point but with none achieving a level of destruction that can correspond to the power displayed in the global destruction which occurred near the end of the Triassic period. It could even be said that asteroid impacts are a common enough activity in this solar system, with a regularity that is apprehensive to its inhabitants, though it is impossible to confirm to any particular timeframe - the randomness of direct hits by larger bodies are spread erratically throughout the meteorological record. Smaller asteroids hit phenomenally regularly, with little destructive impact, as most are consumed with indifference by Earth's hot protective atmosphere.
Currently, NEOP has 127 asteroids or comets recorded as potential impact risks at various future dates. All contain slight probabilities of making a direct hit, but they also all contain a real possibility of entering a trajectory that could align them towards our planet. It is thought that as the NASA programme gains increased spending budgets, better information technology materials, and with the further evolution of satellite telescopic equipment, that the instances will dramatically rise over the course of the next decade to possibly number in the thousands. The reason being, there is almost certainly an innumerable level of celestial material floating around our solar system waiting for orbiting planets (travelling at huge speeds) to collide with in gargantuan contacts; but that thus far we have not been looking out for their immense flights.
It will be interesting to see just how many near misses the Earth is in for now that a record will be produced to collate their occurrence. One thing is certain, however, and which NASA's scientists have disturbingly confirmed – there are only a finite number of near misses before Earth is hit again by an asteroid with the size and pace to do significant damage.
It is simply a matter of time.