MRO Helps Trim Odds Of Asteroid Impact

PASADENA, Calif. January 15, 2013 – NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., effectively have ruled out the possibility the asteroid Apophis will impact Earth during a close flyby in 2036.

The Magdalena Ridge Observatory is one of three telescopes that provided critical data on Apophis’ orbit. Coupled with observations from Hawaii, the NASA scientists can now accurately pinpoint the location of Apophis in future encounters. Due to differences in orbit, Apophis and Earth cross paths about every seven years.

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Dr. Eileen Ryan of the Magdalena Ridge Observatory.


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An image of Apophis captured by the MRO.


Astronomers had warned for several years that Apophis had a small chance of striking Earth in 2036. Thanks in part to observations at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory at New Mexico Tech, those threats have been negated.

Discovered in 2004, the 270-meter asteroid gathered the immediate attention of space scientists and the media when initial calculations of its orbit indicated a 1-in-40 possibility of an Earth impact during a close flyby in 2029. Data discovered during a search of old astronomical images provided the additional information required to rule out the 2029 impact scenario, but a remote possibility of an impact in 2036 remained - until last week.

NASA project manager Don Yeomans credited New Mexico Tech in an official press release.

"With the new data provided by the Magdalena Ridge Observatory [New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology] and the Pan-STARRS [Univ. of Hawaii] optical observatories, along with very recent data provided by the Goldstone Solar System Radar, we have effectively ruled out the possibility of an Earth impact by Apophis in 2036," said Yeomans, who is the manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL. "The impact odds as they stand now are less than one in a million, which makes us comfortable saying we can effectively rule out an Earth impact in 2036. Our interest in asteroid Apophis will essentially be for its scientific interest for the foreseeable future."

NASA detects and tracks asteroids and comets passing close to Earth using both ground and space-based telescopes. The Near-Earth Object Observations Program, commonly called "Spaceguard," discovers these objects, characterizes a subset of them and plots their orbits to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.

New Mexico Tech is one of six members of Spaceguard. Three telescopes are tasked by NASA to discover new asteroids. Tech’s 2.4-meter telescope at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory is one of the three funded telescopes that characterizes the newly-found asteroids.

“We’re honored to be one of the NASA-supported telescopes that is continually surveying the night sky,” Eileen Ryan said. “We are six observatories working together synergistically. It’s a small group and working together is fun and rewarding.”

The April 13, 2029, flyby of asteroid Apophis will be one for the record books. On that date, Apophis will become the closest flyby of an asteroid of its size when it comes no closer than 19, 400 miles (31,300 kilometers) above Earth's surface.

"But much sooner, a closer approach by a lesser-known asteroid is going to occur in the middle of next month when a 40-meter-sized asteroid, 2012 DA14, flies safely past Earth's surface at about 17,200 miles," said Yeomans. "With new telescopes coming online, the upgrade of existing telescopes and the continued refinement of our orbital determination process, there's never a dull moment working on near-Earth objects."

The Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL manages the technical and scientific activities for NASA's Near-Earth Object Program of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

For more information about asteroids and near-Earth objects, visit: Updates about near-Earth objects are also available by following AsteroidWatch on Twitter at .

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech