Humanity can breathe a sigh of relief. Asteroid 99942 Apophis, a 340-metre-wide space rock scientists initially believed to be one of the most hazardous near-Earth objects, will not hit our planet in 2068 as feared, after all.
“A 2068 impact is not in the realm of possibility anymore, and our calculations don’t show any impact risk for at least the next 100 years,” Davide Farnocchia, a navigation engineer working at NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, confirmed this week.
Apophis has sparked many scaremongering headlines since it was discovered in 2004, and given the Greek name for Apep, an Egyptian god associated with darkness and death. The rock was immediately added to databases listing the riskiest asteroids by NASA and the European Space Station.
At first, astronomers tracking the object said there was a small risk it would smash into Earth in 2029. That was later ruled out, though they said it could have a second chance when it comes near again in 2036. The risk was, again, recalculated and found to be off as well, though the scientists said the space rock could come back to threaten us in 2068.
‘Doomsday’ asteroid Apophis more massive than first thought
Those fears, however, have been put to rest after boffins were able to get a closer look at Apophis’s orbit as it passed by at a safe distance on March 5. Now they reckon it won’t crash into Earth in 2068 nor any time over the next century. Experts are so sure about this that the asteroid has been removed from official risk lists by NASA and the ESA.
“With the support of recent optical observations and additional radar observations, the uncertainty in Apophis’ orbit has collapsed from hundreds of kilometers to just a handful of kilometers when projected to 2029. This greatly improved knowledge of its position in 2029 provides more certainty of its future motion, so we can now remove Apophis from the risk list,” Farnocchia added.
The persistent asteroid is still scheduled to fly by Earth at a distance of less than 32,000km (20,000 miles) – placing it even closer than some satellites in geosynchronous orbits – on April 13, 2029, though our planet’s gravity will deflect its path, nudging it further away into space. Here’s a quick video showing its future trajectory.
For this development, you can thank the astronomers who monitored the object using a 70-metre (230-foot) radio antenna at the Deep Space Network’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the US, and were able to track the rock’s motion to an accuracy of about 150 metese.
The radar images have a resolution of about 38.75 metres (127 feet) per pixel – not bad for trying to eyeball a moving object 17 million kilometres away. “If we had binoculars as powerful as this radar, we would be able to sit in Los Angeles and read a dinner menu at a restaurant in New York,” said Marina Brozovic, a scientist working at JPL, who led the radar observations.
Instead of feeling a tiny sense of dread, we can now all look forward to Apophis paying us a harmless visit in eight years when it will be visible to the naked eye. Scientists will use this opportunity to study the asteroid at an even closer detail than currently possible to figure out how fast it’s spinning and if that could cause “asteroid quakes” on its surface.
“When I started working with asteroids after college, Apophis was the poster child for hazardous asteroids,” said Farnocchia. “There’s a certain sense of satisfaction to see it removed from the risk list, and we’re looking forward to the science we might uncover during its close approach in 2029.” ®
More recently, Cotter placed third in this year’s Ideate Ireland business competition, which rewards entrepreneurial skills and new ideas from undergraduate and postgraduate students. He shared his third-place prize of €5,000 with Dr Fiona McGillicuddy and Dr Rachel Byrne of MetHealth.
Earlier in the year, Cotter Agritech participated in the inaugural AgTechUCD Agccelerator Programme, which was dedicated to early-stage agritech and food-tech start-ups. At the end of the 12-week programme, Cotter Agritech was named the winner of the AIB and Yield Lab AgTech Start-up 2022 Award, winning €10,000.
10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.
The EU has moved to rein in the “wild west” of crypto assets by agreeing a groundbreaking set of rules for the sector, adding to pressure on the UK and US to introduce their own curbs.
Representatives from the European parliament and EU states inked an agreement late on Thursday that contains measures to guard against market abuse and manipulation, as well as requiring that crypto firms provide details of the environmental impact of their assets.
“Today, we put order in the wild west of crypto assets and set clear rules for a harmonised market,” said Stefan Berger, the German MEP who led negotiations on behalf of the parliament.
Referring to the recent slump in cryptocurrency prices – the total value of the market has fallen from $3tn (£2.5tn) last year to less than $900bn – Berger added: “The recent fall in the value of digital currencies shows us how highly risky and speculative they are and that it is fundamental to act.”
The markets in crypto assets (MiCA) law is expected to come into force at about the end of 2023. Globally, crypto assets are largely unregulated, with national operators in the EU required only to show controls for combating money laundering.
Cryptocurrency is the term for a group of digital assets that share the same underlying structure as bitcoin: a publicly available “blockchain” that records ownership without having any central authority in control.
The sector’s supporters have said it represents a good investment because, for instance, it carries low fees and, unlike conventional currencies, is not tied to governments. Nevertheless, its detractors say a lack of regulatory oversight or implicit government support, because of crypto and bitcoin’s independent origins, make it susceptible to scams and wild fluctuations in price.
MiCA will be the first comprehensive regime for crypto assets in the world and will contain strong measures to guard against market abuse and manipulation, Ernest Urtasun, a Green party MEP, said.
The new law gives issuers of crypto assets and providers of related services a “passport” to serve clients across the EU from a single base, while meeting capital and consumer protection rules. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a $40bn market last year, are not covered by MiCA.
The EU negotiations on Thursday also focused on issues such as supervision and energy consumption of crypto assets. “We have agreed that crypto asset providers should in future disclose the energy consumption and environmental impact of assets,” Berger said.
The UK and US, two significant crypto centres, have yet to approve similar rules, although regulators in both countries have warned of the need for stronger safeguards in the sector.
The MiCA law is expected to set a benchmark for other regulatory regimes for crypto globally, although one expert said the all-encompassing nature of the EU regime might not be replicated.
Harry Eddis, the global co-head of fintech at Linklaters, a London-based law firm, said the EU had “nailed its crypto colours to the mast” with the law.
“Other jurisdictions have shown little appetite to date in following their lead in implementing such an all-encompassing regulation, although we can surely expect to see other financial services centres upping their game in regulating the crypto community, albeit in a more piecemeal fashion.”
In May, the Treasury declared it wants a regime in place for dealing the collapse of a stablecoin, a cryptocurrency that is backed by traditional assets such as short-term debt and therefore could pose a risk to the wider financial system.
Crypto assets came under pressure after the collapse of the TerraUSD stablecoin project in May, with the major US cryptocurrency lending company Celsius Network freezing withdrawals and transfers. However, the sector has also proven susceptible to wider economic factors.
These include stock market declines linked to rising inflation and ensuing increases in interest by central banks. Raising rates – a path taken by the US, UK and Swiss central banks last month – can make risky assets less attractive.
For instance, certain tech stocks, whose price can be based on expectations of strong future earnings over many decades, can be less appealing than the fixed returns on offer immediately from investments such as bonds, which become more attractive in a higher lending rate environment.
The regulatory breakthrough came as India’s central bank said cryptocurrencies were based on “make believe”. The bank’s latest financial stability report said cryptocurrencies were no more than “sophisticated speculation”.
The bank’s governor, Shaktikanta Das, wrote: “Cryptocurrencies are a clear danger. Anything that derives value based on make believe, without any underlying [value], is just speculation under a sophisticated name.”
Dundee Satellite Station’s home turf at Scotland’s Errol Aerodrome is to host an Optical Ground Station to test and demonstrate satellite quantum secure communications.
The name may sound familiar. Dundee Satellite Station Ltd. is a phoenix rising from the ashes of the University of Dundee Satellite Receiving Station (DSRS), which was axed in 2019 after more than 40 years of operations.
The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) cut funding for the facility in 2019 and, despite protestations from the likes of NASA, the lights went out when Dundee University refused to underwrite the annual costs of £338,000. As a reminder, the Principal of the University (paid nearly £300,000 including pension contributions) departed later that year under somewhat of a cloud.
The services provided by DSRS have proven invaluable over the years, with a vast archive of data collected from satellites by its receivers available to the public and industry alike. However, and despite repeated claims from politicians of the importance of space technology to the country’s economy, it appeared to be all over.
Or not. In 2020 former staffer Neil Lonie told The Register that plans were afoot to rescue the tracking antennas and reconstruct the facility at the RAF Errol airfied. The Register took a trip to the site this year, and we were impressed by the achievement of the small team in bringing the service back online.
Station operations director Neil Lonie and technical director Paul Crawford
The story of how Dundee Satellite Station Ltd. rose from the ashes of the Dundee Satellite Receiving Station is one of ingenuity and tenacity, particularly considering the pandemic. Having made the decision to proceed, the team were able to commence commercial operations in the opening months of 2021 (the first imagery was received by the 3.7m antenna in September 2020). Fiber has since been laid to keep the satellite data flowing.
The decision to host the quantum Optical Ground Station (OGS) at Errol is further testament to the effort that has gone into the resurrection of the facility.
The system will consist of a quantum signal transmitter payload on a satellite and a quantum signal receiver attached to the OGS on the ground. A reflective 70cm telescope will be used to track the Low Earth Orbit satellite with high precision. Quantum secure communications (another weapon in the armory against cyber attacks) usually run along terrestrial fiber links, but are limited by distance. The hope is that the use of satellites will allow quantum communications to be sent securely all over the world.
The project is a joint venture between Dundee Satellite Station Ltd. and researchers at Heriot-Watt University. The Errol site, located on the bank of the River Tay, benefited from excellent sight lines and low light pollution. Having visited, we’ll have to take the researchers word for cloud cover.
There are four antennas erected so far; 3.7-meter and 2.4-meter tracking antennas and a further two 2.8-meter antennas. Upgrades, the refurbishment of a another 2.8m antenna and a pair of geostationary antenna are in the pipeline, and now the OGS telescope. Reception and transmission in VHF, UHF, L-band, S-band, X-band, Ku-band, and the ground station support options are also on tap, and also handy for Scotland’s burgeoning vertical launch industry as well as satellite tracking.
Going forwards, there are plans afoot for an additional site and power backups beyond UPS units. While the site can be mostly remotely managed, the size of the team means round-the-clock coverage is tricky and depends on the needs of customers. “The goal is to have enough staff that we can actually do 24-hour support,” technical director Paul Crawford told us.
All of which require commercial contracts and revenues. The Dundee Satellite Station has been quietly notching up customers during its first year and a half of operations, and the OGS project is a further demonstration of the determination of a team unwilling to be parted from their antennas.