NASA refutes story of boy who predicted asteroid collision

The story of NASA changing its estimates on an asteroid colliding with Earth in response to a 13-year-old German boy's science fair entry is not true, NASA said.

It's an amazing story: a 13-year-old German boy's science fair entry spots a miscalculation in NASA's estimates on an asteroid colliding with Earth, forcing the space agency to change its prediction.

But the story — first published in a German newspaper and widely distributed in European media on Wednesday — is also inaccurate, said NASA.

"NASA has never corresponded with this individual," NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown told CBC News. "We've spoken with [Near-Earth Object program manager] Don Yeomans, who came up with our current prediction for the asteroid, and he's sticking to his numbers."

The German tabloid Potsdamer Neuerster Nachrichten reported that German student Nico Marquardt used telescopic findings from the Institute of Astrophysics in Potsdam to calculate that the Apophis asteroid had a one-in-450 chance of colliding with Earth in 2036, a far greater likelihood than the one-in-45,000 chance NASA had given.

Marquardt reportedly came upon the new figure by taking into account the chance of Apophis having its trajectory altered by a collision with a satellite orbiting Earth.
The story was picked up by a number of news organizations, including Agence France-Presse and Reuters news agency.

The story claimed NASA and the European Space Agency both corrected the odds in response to the boy's findings.

In addition to NASA, the ESA has also denied giving such approval, according to the Guardian and the UK technology publication The Register.

NASA's Near-Earth Object (NEO) program office tracks the paths of both near-Earth asteroids and comets. As of Jan. 20, 2008, the NEO office said it has discovered 5,086 near-Earth asteroids. The NEO office lists 910 known asteroids that can be classified as potentially hazardous to Earth.

Apophis is of particular interest because it was once thought to be far more likely to strike Earth, according to NEO predictions.

The asteroid once rated a four out of 10 on the Torino scale and was given a one-in-42 chance of striking Earth in 2036. Later study dropped the likelihood of a collision to one in 45,000.

The Torino scale starts at zero, given to events of "no likely consequences." Phrases such as "regional devastation" start creeping in at about four on the scale. The scale ends, at 10, with what the NEO office describes as a certain collision "capable of causing global climatic catastrophe that may threaten the future of civilization as we know it."