Two weeks ago around Christmas time, the head of the Russian Space Agency, Anatoly Perminov, announced that his agency is going to develop a plan to deflect the asteroid Apophis as it approaches the Earth in 2029.
Now a NASA research scientist, Dr. Paul Chodas, claims that Apophis only has a 1 in 250,000 chance of hitting the Earth in 2029.
But in its close approach to Earth’s gravitational field, chances can be altered:
[…]Apophis (previously known by its provisional designation 2004 MN4) is a near-Earth asteroid that caused a brief period of concern in December 2004 because initial observations indicated a relatively large probability that it would strike the Earth in 2029. Additional observations provided improved predictions that eliminated the possibility of an impact on Earth or the Moon in 2029. However there remained a possibility that during the 2029 close encounter with Earth, Apophis would pass through a “gravitational keyhole”, a precise region in space no more than about 400 meters across, that would set up a future impact on April 13, 2036. This possibility kept the asteroid at Level 1 on the Torino impact hazard scale until August 2006.
Additional observations of the trajectory of Apophis revealed the “keyhole” would likely be missed and on August 5, 2006, Apophis was lowered to a Level 0 on the Torino Scale. As of October 19, 2006 the impact probability for April 13, 2036 is estimated at 1 in 45,000. An additional impact date in 2037 has been identified, however the impact probability for that encounter is 1 in 12.3 million.
Let’s keep in mind that Apophis isn’t the only NEO (Near Earth Object) flying around crossing Earth’s orbit, there are hundreds.
And more are discovered every day.
Recently the Presidential panel that reviewed NASA’s Vision of Space Exploration, the Augustine Commity, listed as an option a plan called the “Flexible Path” to replace the proposed Moon and Mars landings. The main reason for the change was economic, there simply isn’t any money to fund the Moon and Mars plans. But the Flexible Path suggests exploring Libration Points, constructing large telescopes, close Lunar orbits with robot landers exploring the Moon and taking an Hohmann orbit journey to Mars’ moon Phobos.
But the central meme of the Flexible Path is NEO exploration.
In fact, a study was already done by Lockheed-Martin last fall on that very thing:
Call it Operation: Plymouth Rock. A plan to send a crew of astronauts to an asteroid is gaining momentum, both within NASA and industry circles.
Not only would the deep space sojourn shake out hardware, it would also build confidence in long-duration stints at the moon and Mars. At the same time, the trek would sharpen skills to deal with a future space rock found on a collision course with Earth.
In Lockheed Martin briefing charts, the mission has been dubbed “Plymouth Rock – An Early Human Asteroid Mission Using Orion.” Lockheed is the builder of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, the capsule-based replacement for the space shuttle.
Study teams are now readying high-level briefings for NASA leaders – perhaps as early as this week – on a pilgrimage to an asteroid, along with appraisals of anchoring large, astronaut-enabled telescopes far from Earth, a human precursor mission to the vicinity of Mars, as well as an initiative to power-beam energy from space to Earth.
The briefings have been spurred in response to the recent Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee and the option of a “Flexible Path” to human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.
In my view, the Russian Space Agency’s announcement isn’t a surprise at all, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised that NASA knew about it before hand!
Just my opinion y’know. 😉