Image Shows God of Chaos Asteroid Apophis Gearing up to Pass Earth

The asteroid Apophis, the potentially hazardous space rock due to pass close to Earth next month, has been photographed by a ground-based telescope project.

The image was captured by the Elena robotic telescope unit, which took a single exposure shot of the sky lasting 300 seconds.

Apophis has captured the world's attention after astronomers spotted it in 2004 and calculated, at the time, that there was a nearly three percent chance it would collide with the Earth in April 2029.

This was later ruled out when further measurements pushed the year when the risk of impact was highest to 2068. The risk is currently less than one percent.

Apophis can be seen in the centre of the image below, as a small white dot marked with an arrow to its right. The Elena telescope is operated by Europe's Virtual Telescope Project.

Photo of Apophis
A photo of Apophis, indicated by the horizontal arrow, taken with the Virtual Telescope Project's "Elena" telescope. Gianluca Masi/Virtual Telescope Project

The photo does not convey the true size of the asteroid, which is estimated to be almost 1,000ft wide, hence the concern about any possible impact.

On March 6, Apophis will pass relatively close to the Earth—about 9.3 million miles— meaning it will be near enough to be seen by small telescopes.

It will pose absolutely no risk to Earth at that distance, though. For comparison, the moon is a mere 238,900 miles away.

Afterwards, attention will turn to April 13, 2029, when Apophis will pass so close to Earth that people should be able to spot it with the naked eye. Sky-watchers will see Apophis as a speck of light moving east to west over Australia.

Marina Brozović, a radar scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has said the event "will be an incredible opportunity for science."

On that occasion, the distance to Earth will be much smaller at just 19,800 miles, so the asteroid will come well between the Earth and the Moon. According to NASA, it's rare for an asteroid of its size to come so close to our planet. Even so, scientists say this distance will be safe.

Looking ahead to 2068, when another close pass is due, scientists have predicted the likelihood of an impact at that time is extremely low—just one in 380,000 odds, according to results computed on January 20 this year by NASA's Center for Near Earth Object Studies.

Put another way, there is a 99.99974 percent chance the asteroid will not hit the Earth.

In November last year, scientists discovered Apophis was moving in a way they had not considered in their previous modelling of its orbital path.

This movement was later attributed to a phenomenon known as Yarkovsky radiation, in which part of the asteroid is heated up by the sun. The heat produced then gives the asteroid a tiny push in a certain direction, which over time can change its path through space.

David Tholen, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said scientists had not taken this movement into account when they had previously tracked and predicted Apophis' movements.

He said in press conference last October: "The 2068 impact scenario is still in play. We need to track this asteroid very carefully."

Stock image of a planetoid
A stock image shows a planetoid in empty space. Apophis is roughly the size of three-and-a-half football fields, NASA has said. iStackphotons/iStock