The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Asteroid Apophis to Hit Earth in 2036? Calm Down, the Sky is NOT Falling

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 9, 2011

In recent days, one of the more popular news stories flying around the Internet has to do with a supposed “doomsday” asteroid called Apophis. And, according to some idiotic journalists who seem to want to push a sensationalistic “news” story, this asteroid is going to hit the Earth in 2036 with devastating consequences – in short, they say this is going to happen…

Well, I’m here to tell you that this is, to use the scientifically-accurate phrase, a complete load of crap. That’s because the original story, which came via a Russian “news” outlet, has been completely and thoroughly refuted by NASA and scientists worldwide…

Will Apophis Hit Earth in 2036? NASA Rejects Russian Report

In 2004, NASA scientists announced that there was a chance that Apophis, an asteroid larger than two football fields, could smash into Earth in 2029. A few additional observations and some number-crunching later, astronomers noted that the chance of the planet-killer hitting Earth in 2029 was nearly zilch.

Now, reports out of Russia say that scientists there estimate Apophis will collide with Earth on April 13, 2036. These reports conflict on the probability of such a doomsday event, but the question remains: How scared should we be?

In answer to that question, I think we shouldn’t really be scared at all.  When you crunch the latest numbers, the probability that Apophis will actually impact the Earth in 2036 is about 1-in-250,000.  If you work that out to a percentage, it comes out to a 0.0004% chance the asteroid will hit Earth.  That’s a pretty slim chance, and certainly nothing to get all upset about, in my opinion.

Let’s think of it this way: compare the probability that Apophis will hit Earth in 2036 with the chances of other unfortunate events (as reported by Popular Science magazine)…

Lifetime odds of dying from:

Any accident: 1 in 36

A motor vehicle accident: 1 in 81

A firearm: 1 in 202

Poisoning: 1 in 344

A falling object (terrestrial): 1 in 4,873

Drowning in a bathtub: 1 in 10,455

Being caught in or between objects: 1 in 29,860

Suffocation by a plastic bag: 1 in 130,498

So that means that you are about twice as likely to die by being suffocated in a plastic bag as compared to the chances that this “killer” asteroid Apophis will wipe out planet Earth.  Stop and think about that for a moment… now, are you suddenly going to start demanding the recall of all plastic bags from society in order to protect humanity?  No?  Good.

Now, please don’t get me wrong – I think the issue of tracking & cataloging near-Earth objects (NEOs) is a very important one, precisely because we have solid evidence that NEOs such as asteroids & comet fragments can and do hit the Earth.  In fact, this happens all the time, but the regular impacts are from smaller objects; the big, “planet-killer” type objects are fewer in number so the chances of one coming our way is comparatively small.  But it could happen, and with the implications being what they are (i.e., the destruction of human civilization on Earth being among the worst-case scenarios) it would be prudent for us to invest at least some resources into these questions.  And we have invested such resources into NASA’s NEO Program.

So, in conclusion, is the sky falling with regards to Apophis?  No.

Should you go buying your own “asteroid apocalypse” bunker?  No.

Should we then turn a blind eye to the potential threat of NEOs?  No.

Should we invest a reasonable amount of money into researching this issue?  Yes.

Interestingly enough, one thing we really can do when Apophis makes its closest approach to Earth in 2036 is use the opportunity to learn more about asteroids and the early solar system.  In fact, some scientists already have plans to use Apophis as an amazing research opportunity!

If you’d like to know more about Apophis, and the related physics & astronomy behind it, I suggest taking a look at this entry over at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog.

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9 Responses to “Asteroid Apophis to Hit Earth in 2036? Calm Down, the Sky is NOT Falling”

  1. ronmurp said

    “you are about twice as likely to die by being suffocated in a plastic bag…Stop and think about that for a moment”

    I thought about it.

    I don’t put plastics bags on my head, whereas lots of young children and drunk teenagers might. Odds for me? Gazillion to 1.

    Motor accident, or firearm? I work from home, in the UK, whereas auto-crazy gun toting US citizens are at greater risk. Odds for me? Gazillion to 1.

    But the asteroid hitting the earth is a probability we all share, if the asteroid is big enough.

    Of course the auto and gunshot averages just over NRA speedsters might reassure them about the asteroid – Chances of death by gunshot or auto accident must be pretty high. But I suspect they weren’t too worried about asteroids anyway. The people that do worry about asteroids are probably people who worry about all those other risks, and so avoid them, and so their particular risks aren’t represented by those particular averages.

    So, as risks go, perhaps the people for whom an asteroid hit is more likely than other incidents should continue to worry about it in proportion to the other risks they face. Panic!

  2. Apolotto said

    Ok, so let me put this in perspective like you have.

    1. Odds of a huge rock hitting the Earth and wiping us out: 1:250,000
    2. Odds of winning a Powerball in the US lottery: 1:80,000,000

    So, are you saying that it is much, much, more likely all life on Earth will end, than any individual in the US winning the lottery?

    Wow.

    • mattusmaximus said

      You need to understand the numbers you are citing. The odds of a particular individual winning the Powerball is 1:80,000,000 (assuming, of course, that your numbers are a reasonable estimate) – these are not the odds that someone is going to win. That’s a key difference.

      • Apolotto said

        Yep, looks like we are saying the same thing. So, for example, the odds of me winning the powerball in the US lottery are 1:80,000,000. Odds of me getting killed by Apophis are 1:250,000. Or in other words, death by this huge rock is 320 times more likely than winning the lottery – for me. I just find that amusing.

        This is purely looking at it from a personal perspective, considering these odds are the same for all of us. Though I do agree that when it comes to the lottery the odds that someone is going to win are 1:1 (for sake of argument). But at the same time, the odds that I will die are 1:1. Odds that everyone else in this world that is currently alive will die are also 1:1.

        I am only drawing the perspective of the individual because in your post you compared death from other circumstances, to death from this particular asteroid. Which is a fair position to take, but if we accept that, we cannot then refuse to accept the lottery position either. Because both are looking at the individual perspective.

        Admittedly, I am not very comfortable with these odds for Apophis. But I’m even more uncomfortable with those lottery odds :-).

      • ronmurp said

        And a little assessment of what’s at stake helps too. 1 in 202 for gunshot, one person dead. 1 in 250,000 asteroid, billions dead. We’re not really comparing like with like. So the list of comparative odds is rather meaningless, and as sensationalist as the scare the article was trying to ridicule.

  3. Even a 1 and trillion chance is to much because 1 is it all it takes to end everything we worked for in our history and for a giant rock to be the downfall of humanity sucks its just a rock a really big one.

  4. The End of The World Is Back On For 2036!…

    You have the power to make a whole lot of cash on the stock market! Simply buy shares in companies who specialise in pulping books – as there are a whole load of apocalyptic 2012 pseudo-Mayan pseudo-prophecy type titles which are now no longer hi…

  5. Luke said

    September 11th 9011 AD

    On September 11th 9011 At 22.00PM A Planet Will Collide with Our Earth This will cause Huge Earthquakes around the Globe Floods will sweep parts of the world there will be Volcanic eruptions It will Cause Global Destruction But The World will Come to an End.

    This was Wrote On May 30th 2013 Predicted By Luke Clark Born 22nd of June 1995

  6. Luke said

    The world is coming to an end on September 11th 9011 22.00pm I predict this With a Planet colliding with our world what will bring the end of the world. Those who are there during that point of time they are DOOMED. THE END.

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