BENGALURU: In December 2004, scientists discovered an asteroid which was supposedly in line to strike Earth in 2029 or 2036. The asteroid 99942 Apophis (commonly called Apophis), had caused concerns all over the world even as its probability to strike the Earth peaked to 2.7 per cent at one point. However, during the course of a lecture in Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium in the city on Saturday, a renowned French planetary scientist laid those fears to rest.
Dr Patrick Michel (47) is a senior researcher at the Centre for National Scientific Research (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, or CNRS) at Paris, France and Leader of the Planetary Science Team, Lagrange Laboratory, Côte d’Azur Observatory at Nice, France. He gave a lecture on a topic that evoked both intrigue and possibly a slight alarm — ‘The fascinating exploration of asteroids, how to trace back our solar system history and protect ourselves from an impact.’ But what got the audience most impressed was the fact that an asteroid was named after Dr Michel.
Responding to a question on Apophis from a member of the audience, Dr Michel said, “Following its discovery in 2004, its probability to strike the Earth in 2029 kept reducing, but it was still high for 2036. In 2013, Apophis passed very close to the Earth. The measurements made then, verifies that Apophis will not strike the Earth either in 2029 or in 2036.” Dr Michel added that in 2029, the asteroid, with a diameter of approximately 350 meters, will pass close enough to the Earth that it would be visible to the naked eye.
Though Dr Michel clarified that there was no danger of an asteroid striking the Earth for the next century, he added that such a strike could have a catastrophic effect on the entire earth.
“It is a catastrophe least likely to happen, but the only one we can predict and prevent. We have at least a century to prepare, and we should do it now,” he said. As an example, Dr Michel recalled when the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded about 23 km above Russia on Feb 15, 2013 and caused injuries to over 1,400 people.
Keeping in mind the possibility of an asteroid strike, the European Space Agency (ESA) created the NEOMAP (Near-Earth Object Mission Observatory Panel) Committee to design space missions devoted to risk assessment of asteroid impacts onto the Earth. Dr Michel was appointed a member of the committee.
The planetary scientist explained that studying asteroids was important as it could give us answers to the origin of solar system and life itself, since they were about 4.5 million years old. He also spoke about the difficulties of studying asteroids, about the missions which were carried out to collect samples from them and about the promising missions in the pipeline.
What is an asteroid?
Asteroids are rocky, airless worlds that orbit our sun, but are too small to be called planets. Tens of thousands of these minor planets are gathered in the main asteroid belt, a vast doughnut-shaped ring between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.