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Potential Asteroid Collision Debunked by Astronomers

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.


Cause for Alarm?

The year 2011 was an ample time for stories about cosmic destruction. In particular, a curious article about a doomsday event was posted on the now defunct

It was written by the late Terrance Aym and based on an article posted by the Russian news agency, Ria Novosti. Both articles reported on a Russian scientist’s dire warning that a large asteroid was going to impact Earth in 2036. Aym's article, however, made the event more dire than the other.

The astronomer, Leonid Sokolov (a real person), revealed the orbital path of the asteroid, Apophis (a real asteroid), and where it will be in 2036. He never concluded with certainty that Earth was in peril. Instead, he mentioned that there was a possible -- but very unlikely -- that an asteroid can hit Earth at that time.

Despite the dim prospects of this happening, Aym ran with it, claiming that this was going to be inevitable.

Misinterpretation Leaves Scientists Shocked

This was surprising news to many astronomers, especially for Sokolov. In fact, he was seemingly flabbergasted when he heard that his announcement had been interpreted as a doomsday prediction.

On top of that, he first heard of this when American astronomer and popular blogger, Bill Plait interviewed him for a segment in Bad Astronomy (also published in 2011 for Discover Magazine).

The 2011, interview was basically an exchange of email. Still, it revealed much about:

  • The true trajectory of the asteroid;
  • The frustration Solokov seeing his work and words misrepresented;
  • And how false reporting, especially those created for the sake of sensationalism can unnecessarily create fear among the populous; and
  • And the extent of said online writers will go to create a viral hit among readers.

Brief History on Aym

In many respects, Aym was a talented writer. However, he was mysterious, too. It's not certain if that is his real name (the name is similar to a sailor that played a pivotal role in the Flying Dutchman myth). Even his death nearly a decade ago is suspect.

Throughout, the mid 2000s to early 2010s, Aym became a prolific writer. Much of his stuff were on fringe sites or content sites such as Helium. Eventually, he published a book on Amazon to some success.

Still, he was controversial. He was a self-proclaimed libertarian that often went after certain politicians. In addition, he dived deep into conspiracy theories and the paranormal. Eventually, he attracted the attention of many notable figures within this sphere of influences.

In at least one occasion, his article received national attention. This pertained to an article about a possible disaster of seeping methane caused by the Horizon off-shore rig explosion and fire in the Gulf of Mexico. He wrote that this may have triggered a possible apocalyptic explosion in the future. The story made its round on mainstream media. Most importantly, it went viral before being debunked.

Also, he attracted the skeptics such as Plait. This was due, in part, to Aym's pseudo-scientific articles.

No doubt, a misconception about the asteroid’s trajectory was born, thanks in part to this article.

Despite his passing from cancer, Aym's article are still alive. They can be found on several sites. In terms of his asteroid article, it went viral. And, like his other articles it is still published on various sites including this one (back then, before Google cracked down on this, writers could simultaneously post the same article on various sites).

This particular article created a stir among its readers. In fact, it was reported that Plait was made aware of this article when readers of his blog inquired about the article and its topic. No doubt, a misconception about the asteroid’s trajectory was born, thanks in part to this article. Most importantly, it could’ve damaged the reputation of a scientist, as well as the science behind it.

Tale of Two Articles

As mentioned, there are two versions of this article. The first Russian article was titled “Russian astronomers predict Apophis-Earth collision in 2036” . It was originally written and released by the Russian news service Ria Novosti on January 26, 2011.

The second, and possibly the most popular one, came out a day later. Aym's version deviated from the original in several ways. First, he changed the title to "Astronomers Now Predict Killer Asteroid Will Hit the Earth 2036." No doubt, Aym had a catchy headline. This was something he excelled at.

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Secondly, he made the content more subjective. The changes were both obvious and subtle. For example:

  • He doesn’t just refer to astronomers in the first line, he calls them “grim astronomers” Although the article quotes one astronomer (Sokolov), it gives an impression he’s not the only one reporting this.
  • Speaking of Sokolov he quotes him as saying: “Apophis will approach Earth at a distance of 37,000 to 38,000 kilometers on April 13, 2029. Its likely collision with Earth may occur on April 13, 2036…” Sokolov would later report that he was misquoted (more on that later).
Still from video

Still from video

Throughout much of it, Aym wrote a doom and gloom story that captivated and terrorized its readers. In truth, it can be likened to a story from a supermarket tabloid. Still, it caught the attention of many.

In fact, for the sake of comparison, the original Russian article is hard to come by while Aym’s version can be found on several sites. Even Russian media seem to focus more on Aym’s version than with the other.

The Aym versions of the story created a buzz on the Internet with numerous news agencies and blogs picking up the story (including Huffington Post and Russia's Pravda).

Plait Interviews the Russian Astronomer

Eventually, astronomers around the globe picked up on the story, too. And many of them were not buying this potential disaster. Among those skeptics was none other than Sokolov.

In an e-mail interview for Bad Astronomy Plait had with Leonid Sokolov, a member of the International Astronomical Union and professor at St. Petersburg State University in Russia, Sokolov made it known that he was misquoted.

“This is bad mass communication,” Dr. Sokolov wrote. “The probability of Apophis collision in 2036 is very-very small, but not zero.”

Plait, who has written extensively about Apophis and other near Earth objects, echoed Sokolov’s sentiment. He wrote that the odds of Apophis hitting the Earth are “something like one in 135, 000.”

Still, Plait and Sokolov point out that the possibility of it hitting the Earth exists, albeit, very slim. Apophis is expected to pass near Earth in 2029, possibly dipping below the orbits of several man-made satellites. According to Plait’s article, it will have to pass through a keyhole “a tiny region of space above Earth “ to have its orbit altered enough to hit Earth on next pass in 2036.

“100% utter crap.”

— Bill Plait for Bad Astronomy

“We can’t know for sure if the rock will pass through the keyhole or not in 2029,” Plait wrote, “but we can apply statistics and calculate that minuscule 0.0007% chances. And maybe it’s better than 99.9993% chance it’ll miss.”

Another part of the story that was contested by Sokolov and Plait was the possibility of Apophis disintegrating.

The original article -- again, quoting Sokolov - reported that the Earth’s gravitational pull may cause Apophis to break up and possibly hit the earth as if it was shot by a giant shotgun.

Sokolov wrote in his email: “In my talk I have spoken about scattering of possible trajectories of Apophis after approach in 2029 and possible approach in 2036, not disruption of asteroid!”

The final assessment of the article can be best expressed when Plait wrote that it was : "100% utter crap."

Is it Possible?

Plait also wrote about this scenario by stating it’s “not a totally crazy idea” if this particular asteroid was not solid (or piles of rubble held together by its own gravity).
“If they’re big enough, and pass close enough to Earth,” Plait wrote, “our gravity could pull them apart.”

However, he points out a problem of this happening: “Apophis is only 250 meters across; this is on the small side for this to happen. So why would the article say it might fly apart?”

Apophis first came to astronomers' attentions when it was discovered by NASA in 2004. On December 23 of that year, a NASA report mentioned there was a 1 in 233 chance that it will impact Earth in 2029. As a result, it was placed in the Torino scale rating of 2, and later, moved to 4 with an estimate of a 1 in 62 chance.

Torino Impact Scale rates the probability or dangers of a near-earth object hitting Earth. The objects are rated from 1 to 10 with 10 being the “most probable.” Apophis was the first asteroid to be placed on this scale.

By 2009, the probability of it impacting the Earth decreased drastically.
“The odds are so low,” Plait wrote. “I worry more about Snooki getting her own three-movie contract.”

From NASA webpage on the asteroid.

From NASA webpage on the asteroid.

Work Cited

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Dean Traylor


Dean Traylor (author) from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on September 02, 2019:

Minor update: The Russian news agency Ria Novasti is now known as or Spunik International. In addition, it is now privately owned.

Dean Traylor (author) from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on February 16, 2017:

Actually, it wasn't the only article from that particular author to go viral. He wrote something about a potential disaster in the Gulf coast. After the Horizon oil rig exploded there was a belief that a fissure opened on the ocean floor that was seeping methane. He wrote that it could explode and incinerate the Gulf region. It was pure BS, but the article caught on and was even being referred on the radio and other forms of media. And, that started on Helium.

Tim Mitchell from Escondido, CA on February 16, 2017:

Interesting article Dean. It does bring to light that Fake News has been here awhile. I found it interesting that an article at Helium went viral while pondered here at HP. It was successfully debunked with this article.

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