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Undue Ado About Apophis December 31, 2009

Posted by skywalking1 in Space.

Artist conception of 885-foot near-Earth Object 99942 Apophis (credit: Celestia Motherlode)

Russia’s space agency head, Anatoly Perminov, said in a radio interview on Wednesday that he hopes Russia will lead a space mission to prevent near-Earth object (NEO) 99942 Apophis from striking the Earth in 2036.

The good news is that it is the first serious proposal by any space agency to demonstrate the deflection of a near-Earth asteroid, and a recognition that the impact hazard from rogue NEOs is an international challenge. Your lifetime chances of dying in a NEO impact catastrophe are about the same as your lifetime risk of losing your life in a plane crash (about 1 in 50,000). The bad news is that Apophis, which will come within 19,000 miles of Earth in 2029, has a negligible chance of striking our planet, and a botched deflection attempt could actually divert the asteroid onto an impact trajectory.

The Association of Space Explorers and a number of space-faring and interested nations have been discussing an international approach to decision-making on NEOs at the United Nations. Perminov’s interest shows this common-sense mission for the world’s space agencies — diverting hazardous NEOs — may be gaining traction.

Yet Apophis is a poor choice for a deflection demonstration. Recent refinements in estimating its orbit show that Apophis has just a 4-in-1 million chance of striking Earth in 2036. Those are non-existent odds, essentially. But a nudge in the wrong direction, from a failed deflection demo, could send Apophis in 2029 through a gravitational “keyhole” near Earth, with our planet’s gravity diverting the asteroid onto a collision course with impact seven years later.

Instead, Russia should follow through on its positive impulse and coordinate a demonstration mission to another NEO, one that has zero chance of encountering the Earth. Rusty Schweickart, chairman of the B612 Foundation and a member of the ASE NEO committee, said Wednesday that “there are a million asteroids out there…find another one.” That’s excellent advice to Perminov, who apparently did not consult either his own experts or NASA’s Near Earth Object program about the actual danger posed by Apophis (negligible).

Perminov’s proposal should be followed up in the new year by NASA and other space agencies, with a serious discussion at the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), meeting in Vienna in February. The ASE in its 2008 report urged that the U.N.-sponsored NEO discussions lead to an internationally recognized authority to mount a future deflection campaign when a future asteroid threatens our planet. Joint plans for a demonstration mission should be developed, as well as measures for detecting, analyzing, and warning the global community about hazardous NEOs. Apophis is not a danger to Earth, but is a visible reminder that tens of thousands of  undiscovered NEOs represent a real hazard to our civilization.

The ASE will co-sponsor with the Secure World Foundation a January workshop in Mexico City on an international Information, Analysis, and Warning network to distribute reliable information on hazardous NEOs.

So congratulations, Mr. Perminov, on spurring the international effort to deal with NEOs. Now let’s get moving together to prevent such a future catastrophe. The U.S. and NASA would do well to welcome his initiative and take a leading role in these global discussions.

Best wishes for a 2010 free from destructive NEO impacts.



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