by Andrei Kislyakov
Moscow (RIA Novosti) Jul 14, 2008
If we, people living on Earth, are unlucky, then Apophis, a 390-meter asteroid flying toward the Earth, "will smack right into us in 2036," according to Andrei Filkenshtein, a Russian astronomer from St Petersburg.
But if we are lucky, the asteroid, already dubbed a space terrorist, will fly by at a distance of 40,000 km, the orbit of a communications satellite, in 2029.
Reading tealeaves and hoping for the best is not, of course, the ideal way of avoiding a disaster, which is certain to occur should such a large space body collide with the Earth. It would change the climate all over the globe. If it fell into the ocean, it would produce huge tsunamis and evaporate billions of tons of water vapor that would prevent sunlight from reaching the Earth's surface for a long time. In other words, it would be the end of the world.
Unfortunately, methods to protect our planet against bombardment by asteroids and other space objects are still in their infancy and have yet to be integrated into an effective global anti-asteroid system.
Among possible ways of dealing with Apophis, Filkenshtein mentions changing its orbit by means of a gravity tug - an unmanned spacecraft that could push the asteroid off its current path.
The asteroid could also be broken up by bombarding it with nuclear devices. But this method, while technically feasible, is politically impossible: there is a ban on using nuclear weapons in space.
Meanwhile, Russia is taking steps to improve its monitoring of the dangerous space intruder. The Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), together with the Defense Ministry and Academy of Sciences, has launched an anti-asteroid program. The first step will see a special radar mounted on a 70-metre telescope in Ussuriisk. The radar will pick up signals reflected by natural space bodies.
The Lavochkin Research and Production Association (NPO Lavochkin) is working on a space program for 2012-2014 that will gather as much information about Apophis as possible. It is also planning a series of experiments to see if the asteroid's orbit could be changed by sustained energy impacts. An unmanned craft is being developed for the purpose, and different flight scenarios considered.
If the anti-Apophis program is a success, scientists all over the world will be able to monitor the asteroid more accurately, assess the threat more reliably, and consider ways of deflecting it from its trajectory.
An international data bank of orbits of celestial bodies predicts that six large asteroids will threaten the Earth in the next 120 years. But today only three countries monitor large bodies coursing through the solar system: Russia, Japan and the United States.
Russia and the U.S. could cooperate in anti-asteroid defenses, especially as the Americans themselves are interested.
In mid-June, when examining the NASA budget for the next year, the House of Representatives told the Space Agency to cooperate with Russia in all matters concerning asteroids.
The Americans rightly believe that bodies like Apophis threaten all humanity. Republican Congressman Dan Rohrbacher, who pushed for the inclusion of international asteroid cooperation in NASA's budget, thinks the U.S. should share this responsibility with others.
Russia will not stand aloof. It is willing to contribute its RT-70 high-powered antenna system for deep space communications. Its facilities, located in the Far East and Crimea, will effectively complement American facilities in Puerto Rico and California.
By combining their efforts, the world's two main space powers can steer the dangerous guest away from the Earth.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Source: RIA Novosti
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