Representative image of a random asteroid to depict the asteroid Apophis.

The infamous asteroid ‘Apophis’ was used to test planetary defense systems

To test the operational readiness of planetary defense systems, scientists sometimes use a real asteroid approach as a sham encounter with a new potentially dangerous asteroid. The lessons from these sham exercises can help limit or even prevent global devastation if such a situation actually arises in the future. Scientists used the infamous asteroid 99942 Apophis for this purpose.

Named after the ancient Egyptian god of chaos and darkness, Apophis was discovered in 2004. It was soon identified as one of the most dangerous asteroids that could affect the earth. In fact, the object near the earth was considered to pose a small risk of affecting the earth in 2068, but radar observations have ruled it out. Because astronomers tracked Apophis better, they ruled out the possibility risk from the asteroid for at least another 100 years.

More than 100 astronomers from around the world took part in such an exercise last year, in which a large, known and potentially dangerous asteroid was essentially removed from the planetary defense monitoring database to see if it would be rediscovered by the system. Not only was Apophis “rediscovered” during the exercise, but its chances of hitting our planet were continuously evaluated as it was tracked down and the possibility of impact was ruled out.

The exercise was coordinated by the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and NASA’s Planetary Coordination Office (PDCO). It reaffirmed that the international planetary defense community can act quickly to identify and assess the danger posed by a new terrestrial asteroid discovery. The researchers documented the study in an article entitled “Apophis Planetary Defense Campaign”, published in The Planetary Science Journal.

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Scientists knew that Apophis would approach Earth in early December 2020. But the Minor Planet Center (MPC), an internationally recognized clearing house for position measurements of small celestial bodies, pretended to be an unknown asteroid by preventing new observations of Apophis from being made. linked to previous observations. This was done to make the exercise more realistic and meant that astronomical studies had no previous data on Apophis.

On December 4, 2020, the asteroid began to lighten. This enabled the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona to make the first discovery, which then reported it to the Minor Planetary Center. Because previous records were blocked, Apophis was logged as a completely new discovery. The Hawaii-based Asteroid Terrestrial Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) and Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System. (Pan-STARRS) soon followed with their reports.

As the asteroid drifted into the field of view of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission, the MPC linked its observations with those made by ground-based survey telescopes to show the asteroid’s movement through the sky. It then announced “the discovery of a new asteroid” on December 23.

“Even though we knew that Apophis did not actually affect Earth in 2029, from square one – with only a few days’ astrometry data from survey telescopes – there were major uncertainties in the object’s orbit that theoretically allowed a crash that year,” said Davide Farnocchia, a navigation engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in a press release.

As Apophis approached Earth in March 2021, JPL astronomers used NASA’s 70-meter-long Goldstone Solar System Radar in California to image and accurately measure the asteroid’s speed and distance. Astronomers combined these observations with measurements from other observatories to rule out an impact in 2029 for the purpose of the exercise.


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