Taken to school

Technicalities

We're always hearing about how U.S. students are falling behind those in other nations in math and science, but at least NASA can still hold its own ' even if it had to defend itself first.

A story made the rounds of Internet news sites recently about how a 13-year-old German boy working on a project for a regional science competition had discovered a glaring mistake by NASA. In a paper titled, 'Apophis ' The Killer Asteroid,' the student, Nico Marquardt, calculated that the Apophis asteroid had a 1 in 450 chance of striking Earth in 2036, a considerably higher probability than NASA's estimate of 1 in 45,000.

As reported in a German newspaper and picked up by a number of online outlets, Marquardt accounted for the possibility of Apophis striking one of the 40,000 satellites orbiting the Earth in 2029, which could change its trajectory and make it more likely to hit Earth on its return from the sun seven years later. The German paper, the Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten, reported that NASA and the European Space Agency had even fessed up, saying the kid was right.

But the story had a few problems. For one thing, NASA says it never had any contact with the boy. For another, NASA was right all along. The space agency said Apophis' path would not take it near the main belt of geostationary satellites, something Marquardt apparently had not considered. So the 1-in-45,000 estimate stands. The Earth still has a higher chance of being hit by an asteroid than you have of hitting the lottery, but for now, we're reasonably safe from extraterrestrial collisions.

And although the kid was wrong, you at least have to give a 13-year-old credit for trying to tackle the problem.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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