NASA predicts April 13, 2036 as very good day to buy lottery tickets

While I love a good underdog story as much as anyone else, my stink-o-meter starts chirping like a cricket when I see headlines that use words like “NASA” and “corrected by” and “thirteen year old”. So you might understand my skepticism after stumbling across this report on spacedaily.com last month, reporting that a student entering a German science competition accounted for a variable in plotting the trajectory of the asteroid Apophis that escaped NASA scientists… a variable increasing the odds of impact in the year 2036 from a trivial 1 : 45,000 to a mortifying 1 : 450. The variable in question? A satellite. No, not like the moon; a satellite like the one that lets people in Guam watch Law & Order reruns on A&E:

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.

To help myself put that in perspective, I translated the statistics as reported into lottery odds. Basically, the report is telling us that this bright young man was predicting that, thirty-one years minus two days in the future, an asteroid stands twice the chance of smacking into the Earth than I stood of winning $275 with New Jersey Lottery’s Pick 3, as a result of banging into a satellite during a close encounter seven years earlier.

This is where the stink-o-meter went off. A satellite — like, one of the ones the space shuttle carries as payload — significantly altering the course of a reportedly 200,000,000,000 tonne (noting that tonnes are 10% larger than tons) hunk of iron? More importantly, the prize for a 1 in 1,000 bet is only $275? What kind of sucker plays those odds? But what about the bigger picture? If A) your odds of getting hit by an asteroid are better than your odds of winning the lottery, and B) your odds of getting hit by an asteroid will be 1 in 450 — an low not seen since the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event — on April 13, 2036, C) you’d have to be a dunce to not plunk down the kids’ college tuition savings in every Mega Millions Jackpot you can find with a drawing that night.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, respectable journalism had to go and ruin a good thing. If you’re interested in the gory details, this fellow over at cosmos4u.blogspot.com does a nice job of corralling truth from fiction, including a link to NASA’s NEO Program website that then links to this informative-if-low-tech animation:

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18 Responses to “NASA predicts April 13, 2036 as very good day to buy lottery tickets”

  1. […] What are the odds? I don’t know about lightning, but I did do a little legwork tracking down the odds of being hit by a meteor not terribly long ago, and figure meteor, lighting, what’s the […]

  2. Clearly your stink-o-meter did not take physics in a zero gravity environment into consideration. I can see your skepticism if you are thinking things in relation to earth’s gravity (which you clearly were when you threw out the weight numbers of a satellite vs. Apophis.) In space it’s a totally different ballgame. An object the size of a golf ball can punch a 4 foot hole into the side of an object like a space shuttle, so the simple fact that a satellite can alter the course of a multi-ton object like Apophis is actually quite feasible. All that said, I understand your reason for not taking NASA’s report seriously. I mean some of the smartest people in the world being outdone by a 13-year old is quite sad, but at the same time check the physics before sowing doubt.

  3. Hi, Vinny, and thanks for stopping by. My apologies for sowing doubt; I thought the two links in the last paragraph — and the fact that very few of the Earth’s 40,000 artificial satellites orbit further up than ~2,000 km — pretty well put the sensationalism of spacedaily.com’s story to bed. That said, I have to admit to not having the Physics prowess to determine the change in vector a 1-ton satellite might have on a 22,000,000,000-ton asteroid. If you’re willing, could you show me the math? I haven’t had any luck tracking down the specifics of 13-year-old German student’s calculations.

  4. plz call my name is sarjeet i m indian n i like nasa and i love space my problm is my english is week so plz contackt me my nomber is 9213512082 in india i m verry tilented in space plz i m wating thanks

  5. Ewddix Cool! That’s a clever way of looking at it!

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  7. […] that Apohphis path will be a near miss, with its chances of hitting the Earth at 250,000 to 1.  Here is another take on it if you care to read more?   Everyone mark your Mayan Calendar.  Oh by the way, they are now saying that the Mayan Calendar […]

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