Apophis is coming but all is well

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The name Apophis causes ears to perk up. It certainly did in ancient Egypt. It meant take immediate magickal action to defend against ruin. And, they did.

In Ancient Egyptian religion, Apophis [the Greek name for the god Apep] is the great serpent that tried to kill Ra and prevent the sunrise. His name heralds destruction.

Apophis first appears in stories from the Middle Kingdom that began in 2040 BCE. The god is associated with massive devastation and he is a singular agent of chaos. While he never had a formal cult and was not worshipped, the threat he posed to the world was severe. So much so, that Egyptian priests would continue for three thousand years, well into Roman Egypt, to conduct ceremonies, cast spells and hold rituals to defend Ra in his daily journey through the sky against Apophis. Apophis was ever present and bent on eliminating the light.

Ancient Egyptian art of Apophis being warded off [Public Domain]

The name of Apophis was listed in the Execration Texts, the clay tablets and idols that listed the names of the enemies of the pharaoh as well as denounce and curse them. One of these texts is The Book of Overthrowing Apophis described by E.A. Wallis Budge in his book Egyptian Magic from 1901. Budge recites part of the Vanquishing of the Serpent Fiend:

“Get thee back, Fiend, before the darts of his beams! Râ hath overthrown thy words, the gods have turned thy face backwards, the Lynx hath torn open thy breast, the Scorpion hath cast fetters upon thee, and Maât hath sent forth thy destruction.

The gods of the south, and of the north, of the west, and of the east, have fastened chains upon him, and they have fettered him with fetters; the god Rekes hath overthrown him, and the god Hertit hath put him in chains.”

So, when Apophis made the news rounds this week, there was understandable interest among those familiar the religious cosmology of Egyptian religion.

It turns out that back in 2004, a team of scientists from the Kitt Peak National Observatory observed a huge near-Earth object provisionally titled 2004MN4 and later ignominiously titled “99942”. It was an asteroid; and a close one at that. One that is still out there. It is orbiting just 31,000 kilometers from Earth. That distance is just millimeters in astronomical terms, hair’s breadth. To put that distance in perspective, 99942 is closer to Earth than some man-made objects. It is closer to Earth than the Moon by almost a factor of 10.

The scientists renamed 99942 to Apophis. They gave it that name because upon first observations, there was potential for the near-Earth object to cause serious harm.

Apophis is just slightly smaller than the Empire State building at about 1,150 ft (~350m). Its mass is 40,000,000,000 Kg or a lot. If it were to hit, estimates suggest that it would leave a 14,000 ft (4,300m) impact crater with an explosive effect about three times that of the Krakatoa eruption. It could devastate an entire region; and even, some suggested, create other unprecedented consequences from enormous tsunamis to a nuclear winter.

But it is not going to hit. While the initial odds of impact seemed to be about 2.7%, subsequent calculations by an Australian team of astronomers show that Apophis will continue in orbit. Zero percent chance of collision with Earth.

Apophis though, made the news this week, however. Although it is no longer a threat to Earth, Apophis will still be paying a visit. A team of scientists at the Planetary Defense Conference in College Park, Maryland announced on April 30th plans to observe Apophis as it flies by Earth on Friday 13th of April, 2029. It will be bright and visible as it streaks past, getting as luminous as the stars of the little dipper.

The 2029 trajectory of Apophis is shown in the image below with the yellow curve to the right of the image. The blue dots represent satellites. The Moon is not visible because it is much further away from Earth.

Trajectory of Apophis in 2029 [Source: NASA JPL]

“The Apophis close approach in 2029 will be an incredible opportunity for science,” says Marina Brozovi, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who works on tracking near-Earth objects. “We’ll observe the asteroid with both optical and radar telescopes. With radar observations, we might be able to see surface details that are only a few meters in size.” In the JPL Report, they note that Apophis will “will cruise harmlessly by Earth, about 19,000 miles (31,000 kilometers) above the surface.”

Apophis’ trajectory viewed from above [NASA JPL]

Since its discovery, the orbital path of Apophis has been better understood. The future trajectory is also well known and there’s no hazard with those future flyby’s either. However, Apophis the asteroid, unlike its namesake- will help us understand future hazards from these types of objects. “Apophis is a representative of about 2,000 currently known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs),” said Paul Chodas, Director of Center for Near Earth Objects Studies. “By observing Apophis during its 2029 flyby, we will gain important scientific knowledge that could one day be used for planetary defense.”

Apophis is still coming. But this Apophis comes with an opportunity to better understand the immediate environment around our Earth; and perhaps even guide us on how to stay safe from these types of threats.