Photo Shows God of Chaos Asteroid Apophis Before It Passes Earth Tonight

A new photo of the potentially hazardous asteroid Apophis has been released ahead of its pass by the Earth at 8:15 p.m. EST March 5.

The image, taken by the Virtual Telescope Project in Europe, shows Apophis as a distant bright dot against a backdrop of stars.

The photo was taken using a telescope mounted on a robotic arm. The astronomers used a single 300-second exposure shot to capture the image, seen below.

Image of Apophis
The newest image of Apophis released by the Virtual Telescope Project in Italy. A white arrow highlights the asteroid's location. Virtual Telescope Project

Apophis appears solid while the stars behind it look blurry with trails behind them. This is because the telescope unit was following the motion of Apophis.

The photo does not convey the asteroid's size. NASA estimates Apophis is between 1,017 feet and 2,230 feet wide.

At the lower estimate, Apophis is as wide as the Eiffel Tower is tall, but it could be four times as big as the Washington Monument. It is also traveling at over 10,200 miles per hour, or five times as fast as a rifle bullet.

On March 5, Apophis is due to harmlessly pass the Earth at its closest distance in years. It will be roughly 10.4 million miles away, according to NASA, which is nearly 44 times as far away as the Moon.

The Virtual Telescope Project is also hosting a live online event, in which they will show images of the space rock as it passes Earth. The event will begin at 19:00 EST on their website.

Scientists are particularly interested in Apophis not because of this close pass but because of the next one, which is due to take place in April 2029.

Apophis will pass just 19,800 miles from the planet's surface on that date—several times closer than the Moon, which is around 235,855 miles away. It is also around the same distance that some spacecraft orbit the Earth.

NASA say the 2029 pass will be harmless, but the asteroid had caused concern when it was first discovered in 2004 because scientists calculated there was a 2.7 percent chance it would hit the Earth on its 2029 close approach. This is why the asteroid was given the nickname "God of Chaos".

The Virtual Telescope Project said: "Apophis is, by far, the most famous potentially hazardous asteroid."

Scientists will use March 5 as an opportunity to take a look at the large space rock, while others are using the pass as practice for future asteroid warning activities.

The International Asteroid Warning Network has been treating Apophis as though it were a new asteroid they had never seen before, meeting remotely every two weeks to discuss their calculations.

On March 3, NASA said it was aware of more than 25,000 near-Earth asteroids (NEAs). Of this number, around 1,000 are thought to be over a kilometer in size.

Stock image of an asteroid
A stock image shows an asteroid moving through space. Apophis is due to pass by the Earth much more closely in 2029 than it will on March 5. vencavolrab/iStock