Russia’s space chief said Wednesday that a spacecraft may be dispatched to shift an asteroid's course and reduce the chances of Earth impact, even though U.S. experts say such a scenario is unlikely.
Anatoly Perminov, the head of Russia's Federal Space Agency, told Golos Rossii (Voice of Russia) radio that officials would hold a meeting soon to assess a mission to the asteroid Apophis. He said his agency might eventually invite NASA, the European Space Agency, the Chinese space agency and others to join the project.
When the 270-meter (885-foot) asteroid was first discovered in 2004, astronomers estimated its chances of smashing into Earth in its first flyby, in 2029, at 1 in 37.
Further studies have ruled out the possibility of an impact in 2029, when the asteroid is expected to come no closer than 18,300 miles (29,450 kilometers) from Earth’s surface, but they indicated a small possibility of a hit on subsequent encounters.
Researchers currently put the chances that Apophis could hit Earth in 2036 at 1 in 233,000, and NASA says another close encounter in 2068 involves a 1-in-330,000 chance of impact. The collision risk is expected to fall to zero as more observations are made.
“It wasn’t anything to worry about before. Now it’s even less so,” said Steve Chesley, an astronomer with the Near Earth Object Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Four years ago, NASA drew up a plan that called for a spacecraft to be sent to Apophis in 2019 if the threat did not disappear entirely by 2013, when the asteroid will be well-placed for detailed study.
The head of NASA's Near Earth Object Program, Don Yeomans, said in an e-mail that more accurate calculations "will almost certainly remove any possibility of an Earth collision" in 2036. "While Apophis is almost certainly not a problem, I am encouraged that the Russian science community is willing to study the various deflection options that would be available in the event of a future Earth threatening encounter by an asteroid,” Yeomans said.
Without mentioning NASA's findings, Perminov said that he heard from a scientist that Apophis is getting closer and may hit the planet. "I don't remember exactly, but it seems to me it could hit Earth by 2032," Perminov said.
"People's lives are at stake. We should pay several hundred million dollars and build a system that would allow to prevent a collision, rather than sit and wait for it to happen and kill hundreds of thousands of people," Perminov said.
How to dodge an asteroid
Scientists have long theorized about asteroid deflection strategies. Some have proposed sending a probe to rendezvous with a dangerous asteroid and use subtle gravitational effects to change its trajectory. Such a strategy, employing an "asteroid tractor," would require years or even decades to work.
Others have suggested sending a spacecraft to collide with the asteroid and alter its momentum, or using nuclear weapons to hit it.
Perminov wouldn't disclose any details of the project, saying they still need to be worked out. But he said the mission wouldn't require any nuclear explosions.
Hollywood action films "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon," have featured space missions scrambling to avoid catastrophic collisions. In both movies, space crews use nuclear bombs in an attempt to prevent collisions.
"Calculations show that it's possible to create a special-purpose spacecraft within the time we have, which would help avoid the collision without destroying it (the asteroid) and without detonating any nuclear charges," Perminov said. "The threat of collision can be averted."
Boris Shustov, the director of the Institute of Astronomy under the Russian Academy of Sciences, hailed Perminov's statement as a signal that officials had come to recognize the danger posed by asteroids.
"Apophis is just a symbolic example, there are many other dangerous objects we know little about," he said, according to RIA Novosti news agency.
Questions about Russian role
NBC News space analyst James Oberg agreed that the asteroid impact threat merited more international attention, but he worried that the Russian statements were "way overblown" and might be counterproductive.
"Naturally, Russia wants to link up with U.S. and European scientists to work out a plan, at our expense. This is a consistent Russian goal," he said in an e-mail. "Russia really has nothing to contribute to such an effort aside from cheap boosters — and all of them too small for any serious asteroid deflection effort."
Last year, space experts issued a report urging the world's governments to come up with contingency plans to address potential threats from near-Earth objects, with the final decision to be made by the U.N. Security Council. That report is currently under consideration by a U.N. committee.
"Asteroid deflection, and the much more pressing issue of orbital debris cleanup, must be undertaken in a world consensus mode, since unilateral efforts could be stymied by objections of some space powers not party to the project," Oberg said. "Once again, the problem is not in the stars, but in ourselves."
This report includes information from msnbc.com and The Associated Press.