Asteroid Apophis: our nearest neighbor?

The Discovery Channel is showing a program about the discovery of Apophis in 2004. It’s a minor planet that will pass within the moon’s orbit a couple of times in the next 20 or 30 years. The narration was pretty sickening, full of loaded words like monster, assassin, killer, missile, prey, wrath, and enemy.

David Tholen, co-discoverer, U. Hawaii, discusses near-earth objects; Roy Tucker, U. Arizona, explains how they detect asteroids by comparing photographs; Richard Binzel, MIT, says it’s hard to calculate orbits from such a brief sample. Tim Spahr of the Minor Planet Center at MIT describes how notifications come in.

Close pass by Apophis

Asteroid impacts can be dangerous. Brian Marsden, Harvard-Smithsonian CFA, describes the flight of rocky asteroids in atmosphere; Clark R. Chapman of the Southwest Research Institute explains asteroid impacts. Geoffrey A. Landis, NASA Glenn Research Center, describes the violent history of the solar system; Hal Levison, Southwest Research Institute, explains planetary formation; Jeffrey Andrews-Hanna, Colorado School of Mines, mentions the asteroid bombardment of early planets. Finally, Michio Kaku, author of Physics of the Impossible, says that an asteroid twenty miles long could destroy “life as we know it,” whatever that means.

Astrogeologist, Eugene Shoemaker spent decades trying to get people to take seriously the possibility of dangerous impacts. In March 1993, Eugene, his wife, and David Levy were looking for near-earth objects. Carolyn Shoemaker, USGS, amateur astronomer, found an elongated comet in an image they’d taken. Eugene asked astronomer James Scotty to take another look. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was comet that had passed near Jupiter and had its orbit drastically changed. comets have “epic length orbits of up to a million years.” It was also broken into 21 pieces, making a string of comets on the same orbit around Jupiter.

In 1994, Shoemaker-Levy 9 fell into Jupiter between July 16 and 22. Heidi Hamel, Space Science Institute, describes how she thought the comet wouldn’t have much effect. However, some predicted that a comet fragment might make a hole the size of Texas in Jupiter’s clouds.

Bruce Banerdt, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that the fragments came in like a freight train. In fact, the impacts raised plumes 2000 miles high and you could fit the Earth into the blasted-clear dark holes in the clouds.

The Minor Planet Center says that Asteroid 2004 MN4 is 1/4 mile long and could obliterate an area the size of France (texas?) by ice age, poison gas, nuclear winter, boiling oceans.

In 1984 a meteorite was found in Antarctica that was originally a rock on Mars dislodged by another meteorite. It was called ALH84-001. Traces of carbon compounds and structures like simple life-forms. They look like microfossils of bacteria. The rock also contained magnetite, a mineral formed by bacteria on earth. Most scientists are sceptical but the jury is still out.

The program went on to discuss ways of diverting an asteroid from an intersecting path.

April 13, 2029. Near collision. But small variations in orbit may cause a collision seven years later. The asteroid orbits the sun every six months.

James Ashley, Minor Planet Research Inc., points out that there are 1 million to 10 million asteroids of the size that made Meteor Crater in Arizona. Then for some reason they went on to talk about neutron stars.


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