Artist's impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA

The Earth will encounter Apophis

Hi there! You may have heard of (99942) Apophis. As 2004 MN4, this Near-Earth Asteroid was considered to be a potential hazard. Don’t worry, it is not anymore. Anyway, it will have some close approaches with the Earth, the next one occurring in 2029. This makes it an interesting object, and the paper I present today deals with the way this close encounter will affect the rotation of Apophis. This study, Changes of spin axis and rate of the asteroid (99942) Apophis during the 2029 close encounter with Earth: a constrained model, led by Jean Souchay, has recently been accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The asteroid (99942) Apophis

The asteroid (99942) Apophis has been discovered on June 19, 2004, and re-observed the day after (I should say the night, actually), at Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona. It was then re-discovered six months later from Siding Spring Observatory, New South Wales, Australia, on December 18, and very soon confirmed that it was the same body. On December 27, it was realized that this object had actually already been observed in March. This precovery revealed to be very useful to determine its orbit. You can find below some of its characteristics:

Semi-major axis 0.9225867 AU
Eccentricity 0.1914717
Inclination 3.33687°
Period 323.5 d
Diameter ~350 m

Its orbital dynamics makes it a member of the group Aten. You can see that its orbital period is pretty close to the one of the Earth, i.e. close to one year. This raises the question: could it collide with our Earth? I answer NOT AT ALL, but the question was raised.

Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs)

Several programs, like NEODys in Italy, or the CNEOS in America, follow Near-Earth Asteroids which could possibly hit the Earth. Up to now, the identified PHAs have been proved to actually present no risk. The Torino scale categorizes the impact hazard associated with near-Earth objects, on a scale from 0 to 10. The risks of collisions and the energies involved are considered. 0 means no risk of impact, 5 means serious threat, 8 means certain collision… and 10 is the worst case, of course, which would characterize the Chicxulub impact, believed by most scientists to be a significant factor in the extinction of the dinosaurs. In such a case, the very existence of the human kind would be jeopardized.

The Minor Planet Center maintains a list of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids, i.e. worthwhile to be scrutinized. I currently count 1,923 of them, but this list is not static.

The observations of Apophis in December 2004 rated it at the level 4, which is a record since the creation of the Torino scale in 1999. Level 4 means that a collision with regional devastation has a probability of at least 1%. On December 27, 2004, the precovery images of Apophis dating from March have ruled out this possibility, and we now know that Apophis will not collide our Earth… or at least not before centuries. The next close approach will occur on April 13, 2029, at a distance of 38,400 km, which is about one tenth of the Earth-Moon distance. Such accurate numbers have been obtained after almost 15 years of astrometric observations of Apophis, which permitted to refine the dynamical models, i.e. fit the ephemerides.

A close encounter changes the dynamics

The mass ratio between the Earth and Apophis implies that, at such a small distance, Apophis will suffer from a huge kick of the Earth. This will drastically affect its dynamics, and would have significant implications for further predictions of its orbit. An accurate determination of the orbital changes requires to consider the non-sphericity of the Earth, the influence of the Sun and the Moon, and also non-gravitational forces, like the Yarkovsky effect. This is a thermal effect, due to the proximity of the Sun. It is barely constrained since it depends on the surface properties and the rotation of the body.
Of course, the future close approaches depend on the next ones. Another one will occur in 2036, its prediction will be much more accurate after the one of 2029.

A study by the same authors anticipate that the 2029 close encounter will affect the orbit of Apophis in such a way that it will move from the dynamical group of Aten to the one of Apollo. In particular, its semimajor axis will be close to 1.1 AU. As a consequence, its orbital period will lengthen from 324 to 422 days.

The rotation is critical

As I said, the Yarkovsky effect depends on the rotational state of Apophis. And this is probably why the study we discuss today deals with the rotation.
The rotation of Apophis has actually been studied in a recent past, from lightcurves. This is something I already discussed on this blog: in recording the Solar light, which is reflected by the surface of the body, you see variations, which are signatures of the rotational motion.

The lightcurves of Apophis revealed two main periods, at 27.38 h and 30.51 hours. The authors of that study (or here) interpreted these two periods as a combination between a fast precessional motion of the rotation axis, with a period of 27.38 h, and a slow and retrograde rotation, with a period of 263 h. This means that the rotation itself is slow and retrograde, but meanwhile the orientation of the North Pole of the body is moving some 10 times faster. Moreover, the authors discovered that the rotation axis was very close to the smallest figure axis. This is called Short-Axis Mode (SAM), and this means that the rotational energy is close to a minimum. In other words, some of it has been dissipated over the ages.

This is the currently observed rotation, but what will it be after the encounter?

A numerical study

The authors performed intensive numerical tests to answer this question. For that, they started from a set of 10,000 model-Apophis, all consistent with our current knowledge of the rotation of Apophis. In other words, these model-Apophis were oriented consistently with the uncertainties of the observations. They also considered the shape, which is itself derived from the lightcurves by Pravec et al. (2014).
Then, they propagated the rotation in using famous equations of the rigid rotation due to Kinoshita (1977), supplemented by a model of the tidal deformation of Apophis by the Earth, during its close approach. Then, the authors deduced the results from the statistics of the outcomes of their 10,000 numerical simulations.

Different obliquity, same spin rate

And here is the results: the authors find that the close encounter with the Earth should not significantly affect the spin rate of Apophis. However, the orientation of its spin axis will tend to align with the one of the Earth, affecting its obliquity.

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

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