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2036 asteroid strike on Earth 'all but ruled out'

After recalculating their figures, JPL scientists downgrade the odds of Apophis hitting the planet to four in a million.

October 08, 2009|John Johnson Jr.

Doomsday in 2036 just got a lot less likely.

After recalculating the trajectory of the asteroid Apophis, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge have determined that the odds of it hitting the Earth that year are four in a million.

"We've all but ruled out" a collision in 2036, said Steve Chesley, an astronomer with the Near-Earth Object office at JPL.

Previously, the odds had been calculated at one in 45,000, Chesley said.

Though that doesn't sound like a big danger, Apophis has been the greatest worry since 2004 for scientists who track threats from space. At that time, it appeared the asteroid had a 2.7% chance of hitting the Earth in 2029.

At nearly three football fields in diameter, Apophis would cause widespread damage if it hit the Earth, though not as much as the 6-mile-wide asteroid thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs.

The danger of a collision in 2029 was later downgraded, leaving 2036 as the encounter posing the greatest danger.

The latest calculations were based on observations with the University of Hawaii's 88-inch telescope on Mauna Kea, as well as the 90-inch Bok telescope on Kitt Peak in Arizona.

In 2029, Apophis will pass within 18,000 miles of Earth, closer than some satellites. Even though scientists are certain it won't hit the Earth, they are less sure about how the close approach will affect the asteroid's orbit.

"The deflection caused by the 2029 encounter will be significant," Chesley said. "We're not worried about 2029. We're worried about its future trajectory."

The latest calculations, according to Chesley, suggest that in 2068 there is a one-in-300,000 chance of Apophis hitting the Earth.

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john.johnson@latimes.com

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