What Apophis Means as God of Chaos Asteroid Has Close Encounter with Earth

An enormous asteroid dubbed "Apophis" is currently passing the Earth at a distance of around 10 million miles. But where does this name come from?

"Apophis" is actually the ancient Greek name for an ancient Egyptian deity called "Apep"—also spelled "Apepi" or "Aapep"—who was seen as the embodiment of chaos and the opponent of light and order in the cosmos.

The deity is also associated with earthquakes, thunder, darkness, storms, death and was generally considered to be the greatest force of evil in Egyptian theology.

Apophis was often depicted in ancient Egyptian art as a giant serpent. He was seen as the arch enemy of the sun god Ra, with whom he fought nightly battles. During these battles, Apophis could never be entirely vanquished.

"Apophis" was chosen as a name for the asteroid because when it was first discovered in 2004, astronomers initially predicted that it had an uncomfortably high chance—around 2.7 percent—of colliding with the Earth during a close approach to our planet on April 13, 2029.

An impact of this magnitude—the asteroid is estimated to measure more than 1,100 feet in diameter—would cause widespread devastation on the surface.

But subsequent research has shown that there is practically no chance of the asteroid colliding with our planet during the close approach in 2029, or indeed its next close approach in 2036.

Both of these approaches will, nevertheless, be extremely close calls in astronomical terms. For example, the close approach in 2029 will take Apophis within around 20,000 miles of our planet, which is equivalent to just 10 percent of the average distances between Earth and the moon.

In fact, NASA says the encounter will be the closest approach by any object of this size that we know about.

Marina Brozović, a radar scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told space.com that an even such as this only occurs once every millennium or so. The space rock will be so close during this flyby, in fact, that observers on Earth will be able to see it with the naked eye for several hours.

The asteroid's current location is providing astronomers with their closest look of the asteroid before the approach in 2029.

After this approach and the one in 2036, all eyes will be on the scheduled approach in 2068. The most recent estimates have downgraded the chance of an impact with Earth in this year, which is tiny, albeit, more than zero—around one in 380,000.

Astronomer Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project predicts that this impact probability will probably fall to zero as future data collection helps scientists better understand the object's trajectory.

An asteroid
Stock image: An artist's rendering of an asteroid. The giant space rock Apophis is currently located around 10 million miles from Earth. iStock