A giant asteroid called Apophis is hurling towards Earth, and Russian scientists are determined to save the day. At first, the 885-foot (225 meter) asteroid was thought to have a 1-in-37 chance of smashing into the Earth in its first flyby in 2029. But now this statistic is up for debate.
Leading the call for concern is Anatoly Perminov, the head of Russia's Federal Space Agency. Recently, he told Voice of Russia radio that scientists are considering a mission to Apophis. He has called on NASA, the European Space Agency, the Chinese space agency and others to join the project. According to Perminov, "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.”
The Russian scientific community hails Permiov’s urge to action as a sign that officials have come to recognize the danger of asteroids. Boris Shustov is the director of the Institute of Astronomy under the Russian Academy of Sciences. As he told the RIA Novosti news agency, "Apophis is just a symbolic example; there are many other dangerous objects we know little about.”
How exactly would scientists deter the asteroid? One idea is to send a probe to use subtle gravitational effects to change its trajectory. Another plan could involve sending a nuclear bomb into the asteroid to deter it, as seen in Hollywood movies like Deep Impact or Armageddon.
But not everyone agrees there is such an extreme need for alarm. After researchers recalculated the asteroid's path, NASA lowered the odds that Apophis could hit Earth in 2036 from 1 in 45,000 to a 1-in-250,000 chance. Another encounter in 2069 might even involved a 1-in-330,000 chance of impact. Future estimates could lessen the threat even more.
Nonetheless, the American space agency determined that a spacecraft should be sent to Apophis in 2019 if the threat did not disappear by 2013. This is when the asteroid will be best placed for detailed observations. NBC News space analyst James Oberg told msnbc.com that he agreed the asteroid impact threat merited more international attention, but he worried that the Russian statements were "way overblown" and might be counterproductive.
Oberg also believes Russia might be passing off the expense of such a mission to other nations. According to Oberg, “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." Recently, space experts issued a report to the U.N. Security Council to urge the world's governments to come up with plans to address potential threats from near-Earth objects.