Nazdrovia! Nothing like starting off 2010 with a little talk of Armageddon (the movie). Rumors were flying around the Internet just before the New Year that the Russians are planning a mission to divert the asteroid 99942 Apophis away from Earth collision.
Apophis is a real asteroid. It was discovered in 2004. Although not terribly big, about 270 meters (885 feet) in diameter, if it did collide with Earth, there would probably be a massive explosion in the atmosphere. If that happened to be over a populated area, there could be a lot of damage. However, there’s a lot of ifs in there. IF Apophis has an orbit that gets close enough to Earth. IF the angle of collision is steep enough to cause destruction of the asteroid. IF the collision area is not over water or unpopulated land. And Finally, IF the explosion or rain of meteorites is close enough to the surface of the Earth.
At discovery, Apophis was classified as a Near Earth Object (NEO), meaning that its orbit roughly intersects that of Earth. Original calculations of orbit put the chances of collision at 2.7 percent in 2029. That’s close enough for giving it some thought. However, on second look, the orbital intersection was put at 18,000 miles (29,000 km)…close, but no catastrophe. The chances of catching Apophis on the rebound (in 2036), which takes into account the effects of passing near Earth’s gravitational field, were adjusted from 1-in-45,000 to 1-in-250,000.
These figures have been out for some time, so if the current story wasn’t given a sendoff by Anatoly Perminov, the head of the Russian space program (Roscosmos), probably nobody would have paid attention. NASA didn’t pay (public) attention anyway, as it’s already decided Apophis and Earth collision is a non-issue.
The timing of the story, just before the New Year, suggests a little of the Russian bear tweaking the beak of the U.S. eagle. There’s a long history of Russia’s space program staking out ‘first-mover’ territory, only to be met with stony disdain from the NASA folks. In this case, Perminov’s remarks make it clear this is a Russian plan in the making. (Some people do remember the famous plans of the Soviet era.)
Much more quietly, the European Space Agency (ESA) has also been considering the launch of a craft to crash into Apophis to see if an object its size can be moved from orbit. There’s some consensus in the space agency community (this includes China, India, Brazil and others) that thinking about how to handle a potential asteroid or comet collision is something worth doing. Nobody, however, is actually ready to put up the money for any experimental efforts.
There are several thousand known NEO’s, none of which currently poses a real threat to Earth. There may be other celestial bodies out there that we haven’t discovered yet. There are (underfunded) programs in place in several countries to attempt the cataloging of NEO asteroids, but their studies are years away from completion. In the meantime, asteroid collisions are mostly in the domain of Hollywood movies and geopolitics. Nazdrovia!