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January 8, 2013

An astronomical troublemaker will pass just a few million miles from Earth early tomorrow. Planetary scientists will keep a close eye on it to see if there’s any chance at all of it causing real trouble in a couple of decades.

The asteroid was discovered in 2004. Early measurements of its orbit indicated there was a small chance it could hit Earth in 2029. So its discoverers named it Apophis for a pair of mythological troublemakers — an Egyptian god of darkness and destruction, and the main bad guy in the early seasons of the TV series “Stargate: SG1.” Since then, the asteroid has spawned a legion of doom-and-gloom web sites.

Apophis’s orbit crosses Earth’s orbit, so Apophis periodically passes close to our planet. Tomorrow, for example, it’ll be less than nine million miles away. And it’s big enough that if it were to hit us, it would cause widespread devastation.

Soon after its discovery, though, better tracking of its orbit ruled out any chance of an impact in 2029. But it left a tiny chance of an impact seven years later — less than one in a hundred thousand.

The longer astronomers look at Apophis, the more accurately they can predict its exact location in the future. So each time the asteroid is in good view, it’s being tracked by both optical and radio telescopes. Those continuing observations are expected to rule out any chance of an impact in the next few decades — holding an astronomical troublemaker at bay.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012

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