And They Would've Gotten Away With It If Not For That Meddling German Kid
April 16, 2008 12:55 AM   Subscribe

Enough bad news, enough gloom and doom. You remember that Asteroid 99942 Apophis that we were afraid might hit Earth in 2029? Ain't gonna happen. But it will get close enough for Earth's gravity to alter its orbit and there's a chance it could hit the next time around in 2036. But only a tiny chance: "less than 1 in 45,000 using standard dynamical models". according to NASA. Oh wait... NASA just got skooled by a 13-year-old German Astronomy Geek who says the chances are more like 1 in 450. Still a tiny chance, and the official numbers were only off by a factor of 100. Oh yeah, we're doomed.
posted by wendell (60 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In Egyptian mythology, Apep (also spelled Apepi, and Aapep, or Apophis in Greek) was an evil demon, the deification of darkness and chaos (isfet in Egyptian), and thus opponent of light and Ma'at (order/truth).

Nah, the irony would just be way too rich.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:59 AM on April 16, 2008

Dibs on your stuff.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 12:59 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by From Bklyn at 1:01 AM on April 16, 2008

Ain't gonna happen. But it will get close enough for Earth's gravity to alter its orbit and there's a chance it could hit the next time around in 2036

2036? Cheer up, global warming will melt it before impact.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:01 AM on April 16, 2008

Bruce Willis is going to be way too old in 2036. Especially for life or death missions involving killer satellites. We're so doomed.
posted by seanyboy at 1:05 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

*panics and stocks up on toilet paper and Snickers bars*
posted by amyms at 1:08 AM on April 16, 2008

Hey...isn't 2036 when the UNIX time overflows a signed 32-bit int?

This can't be a coincidence!

posted by hackwolf at 1:20 AM on April 16, 2008

German Astrology Geek

What does astrology have to do with anything?
posted by cmonkey at 1:22 AM on April 16, 2008

NASA just got skooled by a 13-year-old German Astrology Geek who says the chances are more like 1 in 450.

Is he actually an astrology geek or is he an astronomy geek?
posted by pracowity at 1:23 AM on April 16, 2008

Goddamnit. In the 80's I finally gave up on my fear of nuclear annihilation in favor of a fear of imminent asteroid impact. The crap that Hollywood churned out by the bucketful in the 90's finally rid me of my fears of asteroid impact and I felt that I had little to fear except getting old and dieing after an uneventful life. Now the asteroids are back? Fuck it, strap an H-Bomb to that fucker while you're at and call it good. I'm going to bed.

Might as well have it land on the Hayward Fault while we're at it.
posted by lekvar at 1:28 AM on April 16, 2008

You win, cmonkey. But that's because you joined on October 17, making you a MetaFilter Libra, while I (February 6) am a MetaFilter Aquarius.
posted by pracowity at 1:29 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know which is more impressive, the kid proving the space agency wrong, or the space agency admitting as such.

They really need to learn how to check their math there (I kid, I realize they probably do a few thousand of them).

Also, wendell I don't think your charts were perfectly aligned for the post
posted by mrzarquon at 1:29 AM on April 16, 2008

Well shit.
posted by slimepuppy at 1:32 AM on April 16, 2008

astrology/astronomy... pshaw... We're all stardust, baby.
posted by amyms at 1:33 AM on April 16, 2008

The slashdotters pretty much shredded the veracity of this story and its claims. The story seems incredible because it isn't credible.
posted by srboisvert at 1:47 AM on April 16, 2008

Okay, I SCREWED UP. I made a last-minute decision on this... "I'm not gonna call the kid a "German schoolboy" like all the news sources do, let's see, I'll call him an "Astronomy Geek". And I had already looked at the and sites for reference material, and I STILL TYPED 'logy" instead of 'nomy'. Massive D'OH. My sincerest and humblest apology to Nico Marquardt for my shameful miscategorization.

Maybe the ADMINS could HOPE ME, change "Astrology" to "Astronomy", delete this apology and the previous comments pointing out my error before I get buried in the tsunami of well-deserved snark. Or maybe I'm just incompetent enough to apply for a job with NASA.
posted by wendell at 1:52 AM on April 16, 2008

delete this apology and the previous comments

No way! It took me at least a good 2 minutes of hard work to find the perfect YouTube video to illustrate my previous comment!
posted by amyms at 1:56 AM on April 16, 2008

I was going to say that we should take off and nuke the site from orbit anyway. It's the only way to be sure that we don't leave a trace of our civilization. More advanced societies visiting here years later would find that they have absolutely nothing to learn from us.
posted by psmealey at 2:07 AM on April 16, 2008

With any luck, the asteroid will kill all those extra people.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 2:08 AM on April 16, 2008

This may well end.
posted by Elmore at 2:12 AM on April 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

German astronomy geek to NASA: Too bad your ass got saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaacked.
posted by m0nm0n at 2:23 AM on April 16, 2008

This smells fishy. From slashdot comments:

Let’s see. We begin with the original source of data, “telescopic observations.” Good, but perhaps a bit, shall we say, lacking in nine-digit precision. Then we add the element of a bright schoolboy (always a favorite in the papers) doing something big and being validated (instantly!) by “NASA” (not a person, but apparently the entire agency). Oh, and “NASA” told “ESA”, but we still don’t have the identity of anyone other than the putative schoolboy.

So far, doing well.

Then we hit the big problems. First, we have the scare factor of “40,000” satellites surrounding Earth. Most of which, actually, are in LEO, with a few more in geosynchronous orbit. Which makes the space around the Earth only about 99.999% empty space, rather than a few more nines. As it turns out, space is big.

But it sounds good to imply that somehow there’s this asteroid belt around the earth, and that the “killer” asteroid might hit a satellite.

Well, WHICH ONE? They have a lot of different masses, they are going in different directions, and we pretty much have to get a specific momentum change in the right direction in order to get just the right perturbation. Hitting a small piece of space junk is one thing, but the variation in weight of those “40,000” satellites is orders of magnitude. And that makes a big difference in orbital perturbation, even if the difference in orbital velocity is small compared to the velocity of the asteroid. We’re talking about a subtle effect here.

And let’s not figure in things like elastic collisions, off-center collisions, pieces flying off, or anything else. Nope, it’s gonna happen perfectly, just like that seven-ball four-cushion bank shot we all can hit again and again.

Heck, they even called the pocket. Right into the Atlantic, after an orbit measuring in the decades. Now I will grant that the orbit is pretty well known, but again, that little “satellite assist” must be just precise as heck.

A nice touch gives us the “destroy both coasts and darken the world indefinitely.” While it’s good to be so certain, couldn’t they be more specific about the method of destruction? Seeing as how they apparently know everything else, and all.

And finally, we have the 450:1 odds. Not 500:1, and certainly not 1000:1, but exactly 450. Cool. About as believable as my old homework excuses, but infinitely cooler. Can you say “significant figures”? I knew you could.

I think it’s what you get when you let AFP (my source of news of the world for sure) loose in spring.

posted by splice at 2:49 AM on April 16, 2008 [7 favorites]

None of these asteroids want to hit on Earth. Earth must be fuck ugly planet.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 3:00 AM on April 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

The "German newspaper" mentioned in the "1 in 450"-link seems to be the Bild or at leasting quoting Bild (they ran that story some time ago (in German)). Bild has a habit of distorting facts and deliberate misquoting in order to get good headlines, especially regarding sensationalist stuff like KILLER ASTEROIDS. Never trust Bild, Bild lügt.
posted by erdferkel at 3:08 AM on April 16, 2008

The story's credibility aside- I would never trust a thirteen year old boy over a national space agency.
posted by sunshinesky at 3:16 AM on April 16, 2008

Never trust Bild, Bild lügt. - auf Deutsch

None of these asteroids want to hit on Earth. Earth must be fuck ugly planet.

No. The Earth is hot. Asteroids are just shy in that nerdy space geek kinda way. I think Asteroid 99942 Apophis is just happy now that we know he exists. Next time he's gonna get even closer, maybe even ask us to the dance.
posted by chillmost at 3:38 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is he actually an astrology geek or is he an astronomy geek?

Why can't he be both?
posted by Pollomacho at 4:54 AM on April 16, 2008

NASA JPL here and here. No mention of the story there. Astrophysikalisches Institut Potsdam--also no mention.

This appears to be the original story in Tagesspiegel (as opposed to Bild)--the original source was the associated smaller, local paper the Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten (misspelled in many wire service reports), but the PNN paper doesn't seem to keep their own archives.

Meanwhile, The Register took the time to actually call someone at the ESA (journalism! what a concept!). The ESA says, no, the kid's calculations are not correct, the wire service story is wrong.
posted by gimonca at 5:34 AM on April 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Is he actually an astrology geek or is he an astronomy geek?

Why can't he be both?

*consults horoscope*

Keep a tight hold on your purse strings; otherwise impulsive decisions today could be a cause for regret tomorrow. You are very susceptible to a smart sales pitch right now. It will be very important that you think carefully before leaping into any major investments!

*considers it safe to answer*

Knowledge of science generally excludes belief in superstition, but I guess anything is possible.

*knocks wood*
posted by three blind mice at 6:06 AM on April 16, 2008

I blame commas.
posted by Sailormom at 6:13 AM on April 16, 2008

I woke up that morning and wondered why we had decided to have kids.

We had known - everyone had known. We'd known since, arguably - sometime in the early aughts. It was then that the calculations had started - the first guesses about the probabilities that an asteroid asteroid of Apo's size might strike our planet. It would be the first time in the recorded history of human life that it would happen, so in some sense our rather primitive understanding of what was really going on around us - in space, yes, but every bit as much here on this very planet - in some sense it seemed almost excusable. No...explainable.

I remember in 2019 when the news came that satellites or no, the chances of Apo hitting us were no longer chances. We hadn't been counting on the gravitational pull from Planet X because we had still not discovered it at that point. But something had to account for the tiny yet radical change in vector, and after 2 years of infighting in the scientific community, some guy in Australia found the dark planet and the blame for our demise was slowly shifted upon it. Ironic, really, when you consider the nearly infinite multitude of factors that would direct this rock into our planet, but it was as if the world wanted someone to blame for its coming demise.

The 20's were ugly years. Religious fanaticism exploded to an extent never witnessed before, and then the Holy Wars came. Perhaps it would have been better for us had we not cleansed the world of nuclear devices in the late teens, when the world groggily realized that nuclear war of any scale was enough to remove what delicate remnants of the ozone were left, killing not some but all who remained. Perhaps if we hadn't known, we'd have killed off our race quickly. But we knew, and death was averted, only to come for us again in a different form.

Many thought that the Holy Wars would negate the relative impact (no pun intended) of Apo in the first place - it was widely speculated in the late 20's that the viruses were unstoppable and even those of us in the Refuges would sooner or later fall prey to them - that somehow they would find their way from the killing fields into our little remnant-bubbles of life. But they were wrong - the nations ebbed and flowed, and began to fade into the major religious movements - it was as if earth took on a new geography with little definition resembling its former one.

That was when Chris and I found each other. I had been on a systems-upgrade planning trip to Dar - the only Refuge, and thereby speculated to be the only remaining life, on all of Africa. And she was there. She had been there since the Refuge first began there, she had an uncle or something who knew the Commander's family somehow. I remember how I couldn't believe it was her, at first. Almost no one I had known before 2030 was still around - most of us had no one - we were the orphans of the earth and with the deluge of change on our planet, it was getting harder and harder to remember where you came from. Who you were. Who you are.

Chris was still a nurse. It had been 20 years since I last saw her, and she was still doing what she loved. And I still loved her.

Dar was only about 300,000 in the early 30's and it seemed, once I relocated there from Houston, that we had a corner of the world to ourselves, in many ways. We were older now, but we wanted a life together, and that life meant a family, and that family meant the kids.

How do you explain a world that is ending to a child?

I don't think either of us ever figured out why we would put ourselves in a situation where we would have to do that. There were fewer children every day. Indeed, the last one was born early last year. It wasn't that there was any ban on children, or any lack of ability to have them - it was just that humanity as a whole had reached the tipping point - there was no longer any purpose, it seemed. Chris and I knew better, of course, but it was as if each day that drew us closer to T-impact made us wonder, just a little bit more. But there was love in our house. So much love.

2 years after the first pass, the extent of the damage was re-estimated. It was ascertained that this would be no direct impact, which would turn out to be the beginning of the end. It would touch down not in the middle of the Atlantic, as once thought, but instead at a eastt-ward angle, on the western coast of Mexico. The angular approach would cause it to displace fully 30% of the Pacific ocean within the first 12 hours, sending it with devastating force across Australia and then the entire eastern Pacific rim. There had been hardly any life there since the Avian flu and the Plasma Plagues had wiped most of Asia clean, so the impact there would be minimal, in human terms.

It was the fall-out that would kill us all before '38, we were told. Fully half of what was once Central America, and about 2 kilometers of earth beneath it, would be dispersed into our atmosphere. As the last of the dying trade-winds distributed the ashen dust across the planet, we would, in the course of only a few days - and rather ironically, move from the precipice of being eradicated by the sunlight itself, and instead fully plunge into darkness - never to see the sun again but as a dim glow moving through a grey sky. For the first time since the dawn of earth, there would be more carbon in the atmosphere than any other element.

We had not the time nor the resources to prepare the Refuges for anything of that magnitude. While our air purifiers would drone on for hundreds of years, our ability to create food would at first dwindle, and then suddenly cease. We would have the deep ground water still, but the earth, even the protected lands of the refuge, would soon give up its ability to produce. And then the last of us would die.

It was a strangely calm realization for those of us who remained. It was almost as if we had been through so much, that we were ready to lay down for the last time. Thousands began the Early Sleep when it was first introduced in Belfast. Soon it had spread to the other Refuges and it felt as if half of the population simply didn't appear one morning. It was sad, but not impossible to understand. We had been living in a world without hope for perhaps a little longer than we had realized.

I walked to the kitchen, I made my morning shake, and then I walked out onto the deck. The kids were still asleep. Chris too. She was so beautiful when she slept.

It was early in the morning, but Apo made its own light as it crested over the horizon of the Indian Ocean. I counted - 25 seconds later it was directly overhead, but almost impossible to look at, even through the visor. They had said the visor density was sufficient to protect us from the heat and the glare, but it was still like looking at the sun. Within a minute it was gone over the western horizon, and the morning dark returned. A massive white stripe that looked rather like a cloud of steam remained across the sky.

We never felt the impact. I pulled up the sat-cams on my display and watched it, morbidly rapt in my curiosity. As the planet began to disappear from view, it hit me again - the question that I'd been asking myself most of my life - does everything change? Or does nothing ever really change? I still wasn't sure. And then the thought that always followed: hope is the most dangerous thing.

It was time to go to work.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:26 AM on April 16, 2008 [55 favorites]

I'll do this kid one better. I recalculated all the risks of every possible catastrophe, accident, human action, and natural occurence, and came to the shocking conclusion that there's a 1 in 1 chance that every single person on the planet is going to die. Why hasn't this been reported? Somebody call the AFP!
posted by pardonyou? at 6:42 AM on April 16, 2008

German Astrology Geek

What does astrology have to do with anything?

Astrologers are good practiced at tedious math.
posted by owhydididoit at 6:48 AM on April 16, 2008

there's a 1 in 1 chance that every single person on the planet is going to die.

Everyone except for Ray Kurzweil, you mean.
posted by TechnoLustLuddite at 6:57 AM on April 16, 2008

It appears that the "Schoolboy's asteroid-strike sums are wrong"...
posted by fairmettle at 6:59 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think you're slightly off pardonyou, what about Elvis?

And am I the only one, while trying to create a mental image of what this 13yr old looks like, can only visualize Angry German Kid? The internets, I think they have corrupted my brain...
posted by samsara at 7:06 AM on April 16, 2008

I read that as "it will get close enough to alter earth's gravity", and started having all kinds of awesome thoughts.

And then I remembered my Charlemagne speculative science fiction poetry:

If gravity were like weather,
fickle, girdling the planet
in waves and pockets, there would
be days on which we could not move.
We would lie helpless, strapped
to the slowly turning earth.
For hours at a time we would consider
the nature of such an existence,
its underpinnings, its weights.
posted by cashman at 7:32 AM on April 16, 2008

To add to gimonca and fairmettle's pileon: Apophis risk not increased: science fair judges, world media screw up big time
posted by moonbiter at 7:49 AM on April 16, 2008

So, once again we are back to A) There are no killer asteroids and B) Kids are stupid.

Phew. I was worried there for a minute.
posted by yeti at 7:56 AM on April 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

posted by allkindsoftime at 3:26 PM on April 16

posted by chillmost at 7:58 AM on April 16, 2008

In America kids make up bs about getting recruited into division I football programs. In Germany they make up bs about correcting NASA and winning science contests. I guess this explains the rise of the Euro vs. the Dollar.
posted by humanfont at 8:03 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Turns out that NASA was right, and the kid was wrong.
posted by Class Goat at 8:17 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm glad the kid was proven wrong. This will help keep kids off my damn lawn and out of space.
posted by never used baby shoes at 8:20 AM on April 16, 2008

Knowledge of science generally excludes belief in superstition

Some people might just think Astrology is fun or interesting (or potentially even useful). Fiction can be all of those things.
posted by namespan at 9:22 AM on April 16, 2008

I'd hit that.
posted by ericbop at 9:27 AM on April 16, 2008

But it will get close enough for Earth's gravity to alter its orbit

I read that as altering the orbit of the Earth. I was like "Wait! Go back to that part!" Oh, the laughs we used to have before an asteroid destroyed the earth.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:32 AM on April 16, 2008

It will alter the orbit of earth. Just not likely enough to be significant.
posted by klangklangston at 10:16 AM on April 16, 2008

When the hell is the asteroid gonna hit that damn kid? I ain't got all day.

*munches popcorn*
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:25 AM on April 16, 2008

hackwolf : DOOM DOOM DOOM...

Just today, I was teaching my Quaker parrot the Doom song (his name is also Gir), and the nice thing, is that those little fuckers live forever, so in 2036 if the sky decides to fall, he and I can sing it together.
posted by quin at 10:34 AM on April 16, 2008

It will alter the orbit of earth. Just not likely enough to be significant.

Hell, it's "altering" the orbit of the earth right now.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:37 AM on April 16, 2008

Two things will happen:

A). We nuke it off course... If something floating around us can have that big of an impact on it's path I'm sure a couple well placed nuclear shockwaves can alter it.


B). It will burn up in the atmosphere down to the size of a little rock... which will in fact destroy the bomb shelter everyone was hiding in up until the point where brave Ned walks out and makes everyone feel guilty thus leading into a huge group sing along.

Also how do they know that this will cast us into darkness for God knows how long... And will it seriously block the sun from getting through? Plus we can always eat mushrooms. AND Spam will still be around.

Lastly, if this does hit, the reason Humans are the dominate species on this planet is our ability to adapt. Sure a bunch of idiots will die but in the end the mother of innovation is need. And humanity will need a lot of stuff.

I'm not afraid and neither should you.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 11:10 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

so... given these new statistics.... am i more or less likely to be killed by an asteroid than by terrorism?

posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 11:57 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Whatevs, 2012 end-of-the-world theory is where it's at. 2036 is one year before I'm able to retire, and MAN, would THAT suck. I'd rather die in four years right when I hit 40 and have my existentialist crisis.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:00 PM on April 16, 2008

Update: 13 -year-old Boy Corrects NASA's Estimates of Earth Impact — Not
"We have not corresponded with this young man and this story is absurd, a hoax or both."
posted by ericb at 12:34 PM on April 16, 2008

I've come to the conclusion that as I have to die anyway, I wouldn't mind biting it in a catastrophic world-destroying asteroid impact. It's the childish mentality of 'if I don't get to play anymore, no one else should either.'

Disclaimer: This attitude might change if I happen to breed or if my sister's kid turns out to be cool enough to inherit the earth.
posted by slimepuppy at 12:57 PM on April 16, 2008

From the article: Both NASA and Marquardt agree that if the asteroid does collide with earth, it will create a ball of iron and iridium.

I, too, agree that if the asteroid does collide with earth, it will create a ball of iron and iridium. And aluminum. Plus sand and water. And some of that green or greyish gooey stuff.
posted by sour cream at 1:21 PM on April 16, 2008

45,000:1 or 450:1. Are these metric odds? Maybe the boy forgot to convert.
posted by yeti at 1:59 PM on April 16, 2008

Since this post has turned to shit, how about we all play Orbit!
posted by jstef at 4:18 PM on April 16, 2008

Bruce Willis is going to be way too old in 2036. Especially for life or death missions involving killer satellites. We're so doomed.

Have no fear - Ben Affleck is becoming popular again.

The hopes of the world rest on him transcending the sophmoric curse.
posted by mannequito at 4:19 PM on April 16, 2008

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