No, that title is not mis-spelled. It’s a reference to the asteroid Apophis, which will be passing overhead… today in fact. You might recognise the name from Egyptian mythology, or from the popular sci-fi series Stargate. It’s a Near Earth Object, or NEO, a class of object in the solar system that has the greatest chance of coming into close proximity with the Earth.
So today Apophis is set to cross over the Earth a mere 14 million km above our heads. For comparison, the Sun is 152 million km away from us, and the moon is roughly 0.385 million km away, so Apophis will be somewhere in that middle ground. We probably won’t be able to see it passing because of the Sun’s light, but early-evening astronomers may catch a glimpse of it speeding away.
Scientists are very interested in this, because it gives us a chance to gather info about the asteroid and prepare for its return in 2029, where it has a 1 in 300 chance of hitting the Earth. Today’s passing can enable more detailed measurements of its mass and spin, which will give a clearer prediction of its orbital path. And there is even talk of Russia planting a landing beacon on Apophis sometime after 2020.
Apophis has a diameter of 300m, but while the power released by an actual impact would be hundreds of times that of an atom bomb, it still does not come remotely close to the size of the meteor that killed off the dinosaurs – that one was 10km in diameter. Yikes!
With my love of mythology, I have already had to bite my tongue at articles such as the Daily Mail’s ‘Asteroid named after Egyptian Demon.’ Apophis (or Apep if we don’t want to use the Greek translation) is a god, dear Mail journalists. He may take the form of a snake and rule over darkness, and he may have been cast as a demon by certain monotheistic religions, but that doesn’t make him a demon.
Ah well, my love of mythology can run amok here and I can explain things fully. Apophis is the god of darkness who Ra had to defeat every night by sailing through the underworld and spearing him. The god Seth used to be cast as the one doing the killing for Ra, until Seth became mis-cast as a god of evil and darkness, eventually taking Apophis’ place in much later dynasties.
Apophis wasn’t so much a god of evil as a being of necessity – the Egyptians used him to explain why Ra the sun god mysteriously disappeared for twelve hours every day.
One of the funniest things I came across was finding out that the asteroid Apophis is in the Aten class, and while Apophis is the god of darkness, Aten is the god of light. During the Middle Kingdom, the Aten was the disk of the sun, a kind of holy nimbus to Ra. Later on the Aten got a monotheistic religion of its own, Atenism. So we get the picture that the Aten is a pretty big force for supreme goodness. Which makes it funny that such a dark god is hiding in its midst.
It gets even funnier when you realise that in the cult of Atenism, Aten was the one who killed Apophis. And now up in space Apophis is hanging out like a bro in his old enemy’s gang.
This all gave me a major case of the giggles.
But hang on. Atenism is a monotheistic religion, you will recall. So what is Apophis doing there in that old Atenist myth? Well, followers of Atenism engaged in full-scale deicide of the old gods, which largely involved rewriting myths and defacing temples. Because of the monotheism, Apophis had to be relegated to being a demon. So the Daily Mail kind of got it right – but still, Atenism had a brief 20 year stint as a major religion out of all of Egypt’s 3000 year history. For the greater part of time, Apophis was a god. And most people, when they think of Egyptian mythology are thinking of the traditional pantheon, not a wildcard short-term monotheistic religion.
Thinking about it, if Aten were real he’d probably be highly annoyed about lending his name to a group of pagan gods! Hehe.
I looked a little deeper into Nasa’s reasons for naming Apophis. It turns out that Apophis is going to become an Apollo class asteroid after the close pass in 2029, but up until then it will be in the Aten class, and since it’s traditional to name asteroids from within the same mythos as their class name, they needed an Egyptian name with a Greek flavour. They also wanted to choose something that represented darkness or danger. So Apophis, the Greek spelling of Apep the God of Darkness, fitted the bill perfectly.
I must say I appreciate NASA’s commitment to mythological naming very much.
But what will happen after 2029? I’m kind of hoping Apophis gets renamed to fit in with its Greek fellows. Considering its current situation as the polar opposite god to its named class, and the fact that it will be moving into Apollo – who coincidentally is also the Greek god of light – I propose it gets renamed Erebos, the Greek god of darkness; the Apophis of another culture.
It’s around half past two and I’m looking out my window. Apophis is up there somewhere, right now.
This was meant to be a short post.