Funding cuts to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, a U.S. radar facility, could hurt plans to precisely plot the trajectory of an asteroid with a slight risk of hitting Earth in 2036, the BBC reports. Arecibo was set to make radar measurements in January 2013 that could help rule out an impact by Apophis, but due to funding cuts, it might need up to $3 million extra per year to continue. If not, observations planned for 2011 to 2013 may have to be abandoned, the facility director Dr. Michael Nolan told the news service. While Nolan called himself “optimistic” the money could still be found, he noted that Arecibo is the only observatory worldwide that can carry out the job. “If we measure [Apophis] in 2013, there is something like a 95% chance that we’ll be able to prove that it can’t hit the Earth in 2036,” he said. The 300-metre wide asteroid has a one in 250,000 chance of impacting Earth on 13 April 2036, according to NASA projections. On that date in 2029, it would approach Earth at a distance of 29,470 km, close enough to be seen with the naked eye. If Apophis passes through a gravitational “keyhole” in space at this time, it will set the stage for an impact here in 2036. While this is likely to be missed, optical and radar measurements at Arecibo could rule it out entirely. The observatory now operates with a budget of about $12 million per year, but the U.S. National Science Foundation, which operates it, has said it will reduce the budget to $9 million starting in 2011.
Thursday, March 25, 2010