Asteroid 99942 Apophis's fame should precede it. Since 2004, it has been among the most dangerous Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) out there, and past predictions say that the chances of a collision between this rock and our planet are quite high. Further observations have led to better and better estimations, and astronomers have a chance to look at it again this weekend.
At 1:15 am Universal Time of March 6, Apophis will be 16.9 million kilometers (10.5 million miles) from the Earth. An extremely safe distance if we think about risk, and very close if we think collecting important data. As NEOs go, Apophis is quite big – it is between 340 and 370 meters (1,115 and 1,214 feet) across. But as far as astronomers are concerned, it is small and dark, making it very difficult to study.
So, each close approach is a chance to learn more. Unfortunately, this year we don’t have the Arecibo observatory at our disposal after its catastrophic collapse. The radio telescope has been invaluable in studying NEOs and it would have delivered some new and important information about Apophis.
Apophis's closest passage to Earth in the near future is on April 13, 2029. It will get closer to our planet than geostationary orbit, where telecommunication satellites are placed. Back when it was discovered 17 years ago, this close passage became a concerning one, as it was a one-in-twenty chance that it would hit our planet. We now know that it will pass safely 31,200 kilometers (19,400 miles) from the Earth’s surface. This is now known with a 50-kilometer (31-mile) uncertainty, making it a very safe estimate.
The approaching date that scientists are now focusing on is April 12, 2068. Thanks to observations in 2020 and over the last month, researchers have been able to reduce the odds of impact from 1 in 150,000 to 1 in 380,000. Current observations will further help strengthen such estimates.
In 2029, the asteroid will be visible with the naked eye, being so close to our planet. But it is too far away and too dim in the close passage this year. It doesn’t mean that’s impossible to see it, but you've got to have a telescope and be at the right place at the right time.
Apophis will be doing a few occultations over the next week. This means that it will pass in front of a star, blocking its light, which can be used to learn more about it – or just enjoy a stellar eclipse. If you’re curious as to where you ought to be to catch this sight, the peeps at Unistellar have got your back. Apophis occultation is visible from North America on the morning of March 7, and in Europe on the evening of March 11.