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  Night Sky

Enjoy the starry night skies
Be a considerate neighbor. Reduce nighttime glare.
Shield your outside lights downward.
Let the stars light up the night.

March 2016 night sky

—Charlie Christmann

Doomsday Averted 2036:

You may remember when I wrote about asteroid 99942 Apophis; it is scheduled to pass very near Earth on April 13, 2029, just in time for my 44th wedding anniversary. It was in 2004 that astronomers found this chunk of rock and made the dire prediction of doomsday, coincidentally also on April 13, 2036, when Apophis next came by. The 2029 encounter with Earth would substantially alter the orbit of the approximately one thousand foot wide object as it comes within about 19,000 miles of the surface.

The uncertainties about its orbit, spin, and solar effects, in 2004, made it possible Apophis might strike Earth with the equivalence of tens of thousands of Hiroshima bombs. The press went crazy with the stories predicting the end of it all.

By 2008, the B612 Foundation made predictions about where Apophis might land in 2036. A large swath of the globe was placed into the danger zone if the asteroid did hit Earth. The region stretched from southern Russia into the Pacific near California and the Baja, then between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, crossing northern Colombia and Venezuela, ending in the Atlantic, just before reaching Africa. Ten million casualties were predicted.

Fortunately, observations by NASA’s Goldstone dish and the Arecibo radar in 2013 refined the uncertainties giving an extremely small chance of an impact with Earth anytime this century.

Russia to the rescue

Canceling doomsday in 2036 has stopped scientists from trying to figure out a way to protect Earth from these potentially hazardous asteroids. Russia is suggesting that it may test its updated ballistic missiles against Apophis as it passes us in 2036. There are several political obstacles, as well as scientific questions, arising from this plan. Politically, there is an international ban on nuclear detonations outside the atmosphere, not to mention the U.S. military’s apprehension about Russia putting nuclear armed rockets into space. Then there is the ramification of blowing up an asteroid into hundreds of smaller parts. Blowing up an asteroid may decrease the massive devastation at the predicted point of impact, but may spread the danger zone wide and far, potentially affecting multiple population centers as chunks rain down across the globe.

The Russians say their missiles would be effective on asteroids up to a couple hundred feet in size. Being about five times larger than that, it is not known just how Apophis would react to being nuked. Its orbit would surely be affected and chunks could be blown off into unknown orbits.

Is it a good idea to try out potential methods to protect Earth from incoming asteroids? Probably. Is it a good idea to attack Apophis? Nobody really knows. For now, detonating a warhead on or near Apophis is just a proposal. It is up to the international community to figure out if it is worth the risks.

March close call:

You might want to duck between March 5th and 9th. Because of a lack of observations upon its initial discovery in October 2013, asteroid 2013 TX68’s exact path and timing as it flies by Earth is not well-known. At thirty meters (one hundred feet), it is about twice the size of the meteor that caused widespread damage to Chelyabinsk Russia as it exploded in the atmosphere in 2013. Asteroid 2013 TX68 is classified as one of the 1681 potentially hazardous asteroids we have discovered as of late February 2016.

At its closest, astronomers think 2013 TX68 could zoom by inside the Clark Orbit, named for the late Arthur C. Clark who imagined the concept in one of his books, where geostationary communications and weather satellites now reside. No collision with Earth is expected; it would be a big surprise if asteroid 2013 TX68 gets closer than 19,254 miles overhead. At its farthest, it could be well outside the moon’s orbit. The best guess on timing is March 7, at 5:06 p.m. Mountain Time, for its closest approach. But that is still only a guess since the rock is coming at us from the direction of the sun where it is well-hidden from our telescopes. This month, new observations will be made as it passes by to refine predictions for the future.

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