2009/12/30

Report: Russia May Try to Deflect Asteroid With Spacecraft

This story was updated at 1:34 p.m. ET.

Russia is considering whether to launch a spacecraft capable of moving a huge asteroid in a bid to protect Earth from the remote chance of an impact.

Anatoly Perminov, chief of Russia's Federal Space Agency, said Wednesday that his agency will hold a special meeting to discuss a potential mission to the asteroid Apophis, according to Russian wire reports. Perminov spoke on the Voice of Russia radio and said experts from the United States and other nations and space agencies would be able to join once the details are set.

"No nuclear explosions [will be carried out], everything [will be done] on the basis of the laws of physics," Russia's RIA Novosti news service quoted Perminov as saying. Past studies have weighed using everything from nuclear weapons and solar sails to rocket engines, robotic swarms and old-fashioned paint to protect Earth from space rocks.

Apophis has only an extremely remote chance of slamming into Earth when it swings by on April 13, 2036. The asteroid will fly within 18,300 miles (29,450 km) of Earth � a record close shave by a space rock � on that day.

Current odds calculated by NASA give it a 1-in-250,000 chance of hitting Earth. Apophis' second near pass by Earth comes in 2068, when the space rock has a three-in-a-million chance (or about 1-in-333,000) of endangering the planet, NASA scientists have said.

But at one time, early projections gave Apophis an alarming 1-in-37 chance of crashing into Earth, sparking public fears of an imminent disaster. That's about a 2.7 percent chance of an impact somewhere on Earth.

Better observations of Apophis since then have allowed astronomers to refine their projections of its future trajectory, most recently in October when the risk of impact was lowered, and quell hysteria over its hazard to Earth.

Perminov did not mention the recent Apophis impact risk estimates, and added that he heard from a scientist that the space rock is getting closer to Earth and could hit the planet in 2032, RIA Novosti reported.

Apophis is about 900 feet (270 meters) long, larger than two football fields and massive enough to create significant devastation to a region if it ever did strike Earth. It is not large enough to create a global catastrophe, NASA scientists have said.

Still, Russian space officials apparently consider Apophis a significant threat to life on Earth despite the low odds of an impact.

"People's lives are at stake. We should pay several hundred million dollars and design a system that would prevent a collision, rather than sit and wait for it to happen and kill hundreds of thousands of people," Perminov said, according to RIA Novosti.

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