Wednesday, April 16, 2008

NASA's new top scientist - 13 year-old German boy

What are a couple of decimal places among friends...? It's only the fate of humanity and piddly stuff like that. (Actually, I find it particularly ironic that of our space trash makes us 100 times more likely in this case to die a fiery death.)

German schoolboy, 13, corrects NASA's asteroid figures

BERLIN (AFP) - A 13-year-old German schoolboy corrected NASA's estimates on the chances of an asteroid colliding with Earth, a German newspaper reported Tuesday, after spotting the boffins had miscalculated.

Nico Marquardt used telescopic findings from the Institute of Astrophysics in Potsdam (AIP) to calculate that there was a 1 in 450 chance that the Apophis asteroid will collide with Earth, the Potsdamer Neuerster Nachrichten reported.

NASA had previously estimated the chances at only 1 in 45,000 but told its sister organisation, the European Space Agency (ESA), that the young whizzkid had got it right.

The schoolboy took into consideration the risk of Apophis running into one or more of the 40,000 satellites orbiting Earth during its path close to the planet on April 13 2029.

Those satellites travel at 3.07 kilometres a second (1.9 miles), at up to 35,880 kilometres above earth -- and the Apophis asteroid will pass by earth at a distance of 32,500 kilometres.

If the asteroid strikes a satellite in 2029, that will change its trajectory making it hit earth on its next orbit in 2036.

Both NASA and Marquardt agree that if the asteroid does collide with earth, it will create a ball of iron and iridium 320 metres (1049 feet) wide and weighing 200 billion tonnes, which will crash into the Atlantic Ocean.

The shockwaves from that would create huge tsunami waves, destroying both coastlines and inland areas, whilst creating a thick cloud of dust that would darken the skies indefinitely.

The 13-year old made his discovery as part of a regional science competition for which he submitted a project entitled: "Apophis -- The Killer Astroid."

Tomorrow: new essay from one of the authors in the current issue of IGMS.

But first, a follow-up. Here's the latest on the 13 year-old wunderkind:

Schoolboy's asteroid-strike sums are wrong

German kid saw 1 in 450 chance of Apophis apocalypse

Published Wednesday 16th April 2008 11:06 GMT

Widespread media reports claim that a German schoolboy has recalculated the likelihood of a deadly planet-smasher asteroid hitting the Earth, and found the catastrophe is enormously more likely than NASA thought. The boy's sums were said to have been checked by both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), and found to be correct.

There's only one problem with the story: the kid's sums are in fact wrong, NASA's are right, and the ESA swear blind they never said any different. An ESA spokesman in Germany told the Reg this morning: "A small boy did do these calculations, but he made a mistake... NASA's figures are correct."

It would appear that the intial article in the Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten, which says that NASA and the ESA endorsed Nico Marquardt's calculations, was incorrect. The story was picked up by German tabloids and the AFP news wire, and is now all over the internet.

It seems that Marquardt's calculations included the possibility of collision with a satellite in some way not thought to have been covered by NASA, which bumped up the odds of a subsequent Earth strike. But NASA says:

[The asteroid will pass] within the distance of Earth's geosynchronous satellites. However, because Apophis will pass interior to the positions of these satellites at closest approach, in a plane inclined at 40 degrees to the Earth's equator and passing outside the equatorial geosynchronous zone when crossing the equatorial plane, it does not threaten the satellites in that heavily populated region.

All in all, it seems there's no need to dust off the asteroid-busting space nukes just yet. ®

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