How to save the world
Near Earth asteroid Apophis will pass by Thursday morning but will return in 2029 and 2036 when a catastrophic collision with Earth is a real possibility.PT2M23S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2cgc6 620 349 January 9, 2013
An asteroid believed to pose a remote risk of colliding with Earth this century is 20 per cent larger than previously thought, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).
ESA said its Herschel deep-space telescope had scanned a space rock called 99942 Apophis last weekend as it headed towards its closest flyby with our planet in years on Thursday.
The 20 per cent increase in diameter, from 270 to 325 metres, translates into a 75 per cent increase in our estimates of the asteroid's volume or mass.Thomas Mueller
Previous estimates bracketed the asteroid's average diameter at 270 metres give or take 60 metres, representing a mass that would equal the energy release of a 506-megatonne bomb, according to NASA figures.
Close call ... an artist's impression of the asteroid Apophis.
In a two-hour observation, Herschel returned a diameter of 325 metres, with a range of 15 metres either way, ESA said.
"The 20 per cent increase in diameter, from 270 to 325 metres, translates into a 75 per cent increase in our estimates of the asteroid's volume or mass," said Thomas Mueller of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, who led the data analysis.
Named after the god of evil and darkness in Egyptian mythology, Apophis sparked a scare when it was first detected in 2004.
A NASA image shows the asteroid Apophis. Photo: NASA/AFP
Early calculations suggested a 2.7 per cent probability of collision in 2029, the highest ever for an asteroid, but the risk was swiftly downgraded after further observations.
A distance of 35,000 kilometres, meaning it will flit past inside the orbit of geostationary satellites, is the latest estimate for 2029, ESA said.
There remains a tiny impact risk of about one in 250,000 on April 13, 2036, when it will pass even closer to Earth, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Astronomers hope that Thursday's flyby, with Apophis due to zip past at a distance of some 14.5 million kilometres, will help them fine tune the 2029 and 2036 estimates.
Herschel, using thermal sensors, also found that Apophis is somewhat darker than thought, ESA added.
Only 23 per cent of light that falls on it is reflected, and the rest is absorbed by the asteroid. Previous estimates of this reflectivity, known as albedo, were in the order of 33 per cent.
This finding is important because asteroids experience something called the Yarkovsky effect, or an increase in thrust that comes from alternate heating and cooling as the rock slowly turns in space.
Over time, this momentum can change the body's trajectory as it moves through the Solar System.
On February 15, a 57-metre asteroid, 2012 DA14, will skim the planet at just 34,500 kilometres, making the narrowest approach so far of any detected asteroid.