It’s called Apophis. It’s 390m wide. And it could hit Earth in 24 years’ time.

Scientists call for plans to change asteroid’s path.
Developing technology could take decades.

Alok Jha
The Guardian, Tuesday 6 December 2005

In Egyptian myth, Apophis was the ancient spirit of evil and destruction, a demon that was determined to plunge the world into eternal darkness.

A fitting name, astronomers reasoned, for a menace now hurtling towards Earth from outerspace. Scientists are monitoring the progress of a 390-metre wide asteroid discovered last year that is potentially on a collision course with the planet, and are imploring governments to decide on a strategy for dealing with it.

Nasa has estimated that an impact from Apophis, which has an outside chance of hitting the Earth in 2036, would release more than 100,000 times the energy released in the nuclear blast over Hiroshima. Thousands of square kilometres would be directly affected by the blast but the whole of the Earth would see the effects of the dust released into the atmosphere.

And, scientists insist, there is actually very little time left to decide. At a recent meeting of experts in near-Earth objects (NEOs) in London, scientists said it could take decades to design, test and build the required technology to deflect the asteroid. Monica Grady, an expert in meteorites at the Open University, said: “It’s a question of when, not if, a near Earth object collides with Earth. Many of the smaller objects break up when they reach the Earth’s atmosphere and have no impact. However, a NEO larger than 1km [wide] will collide with Earth every few hundred thousand years and a NEO larger than 6km, which could cause mass extinction, will collide with Earth every hundred million years. We are overdue for a big one.”

Apophis had been intermittently tracked since its discovery in June last year but, in December, it started causing serious concern. Projecting the orbit of the asteroid into the future, astronomers had calculated that the odds of it hitting the Earth in 2029 were alarming. As more observations came in, the odds got higher.

Having more than 20 years warning of potential impact might seem plenty of time. But, at last week’s meeting, Andrea Carusi, president of the Spaceguard Foundation, said that the time for governments to make decisions on what to do was now, to give scientists time to prepare mitigation missions. At the peak of concern, Apophis asteroid was placed at four out of 10 on the Torino scale – a measure of the threat posed by an NEO where 10 is a certain collision which could cause a global catastrophe. This was the highest of any asteroid in recorded history and it had a 1 in 37 chance of hitting the Earth. The threat of a collision in 2029 was eventually ruled out at the end of last year.

Alan Fitzsimmons, an astronomer from Queen’s University Belfast, said: “When it does pass close to us on April 13 2029, the Earth will deflect it and change its orbit. There’s a small possibility that if it passes through a particular point in space, the so-called keyhole, … the Earth’s gravity will change things so that when it comes back around again in 2036, it will collide with us.” The chance of Apophis passing through the keyhole, a 600-metre patch of space, is 1 in 5,500 based on current information.

There are no shortage of ideas on how to deflect asteroids. The Advanced Concepts Team at the European Space Agency have led the effort in designing a range of satellites and rockets to nudge asteroids on a collision course for Earth into a different orbit.

No technology has been left unconsidered, even potentially dangerous ideas such as nuclear powered spacecraft. “The advantage of nuclear propulsion is a lot of power,” said Prof Fitzsimmons. “The negative thing is that … we haven’t done it yet. Whereas with solar electric propulsion, there are several spacecraft now that do use this technology so we’re fairly confident it would work.”

The favoured method is also potentially the easiest – throwing a spacecraft at an asteroid to change its direction. Esa plans to test this idea with its Don Quixote mission, where two satellites will be sent to an asteroid. One of them, Hidalgo, will collide with the asteroid at high speed while the other, Sancho, will measure the change in the object’s orbit. Decisions on the actual design of these probes will be made in the coming months, with launch expected some time in the next decade. One idea that seems to have no support from astronomers is the use of explosives.

Prof Fitzsimmons. “If you explode too close to impact, perhaps you’ll get hit by several fragments rather than one, so you spread out the area of damage.”

In September, scientists at Strathclyde and Glasgow universities began computer simulations to work out the feasibility of changing the directions of asteroids on a collision course for Earth. In spring next year, there will be another opportunity for radar observations of Apophis that will help astronomers work out possible future orbits of the asteroid more accurately.

If, at that stage, they cannot rule out an impact with Earth in 2036, the next chance to make better observations will not be until 2013. Nasa has argued that a final decision on what to do about Apophis will have to be made at that stage.

“It may be a decision in 2013 whether or not to go ahead with a full-blown mitigation mission, but we need to start planning it before 2013,” said Prof Fitzsimmons. In 2029, astronomers will know for sure if Apophis will pose a threat in 2036. If the worst-case scenarios turn out to be true and the Earth is not prepared, it will be too late. “If we wait until 2029, it would seem unlikely that you’d be able to do anything about 2036,” said Mr Yates.

It’s called Apophis. It’s 390m wide. And it could hit Earth in 31 years’ time | Science | The Guardian.

RUSSIA PLANS TO BIND SATELLITE TO APOPHIS ASTEROID

Sunday, 08 April 2012 15:57

Russia plans to send a satellite with a radio beacon to near-Earth asteroid of 99942 Apophis for finding out how big is a threat of its collision with Earth, the country’s Academy of Sciences said in its report on 7 April.

The asteroid is considered by the Russian scientists as the most serious threat to Earth as for now.

In 2029, Apophis will be at a distance of only about 36,000 miles to our planet, at the height of the orbits of geostationary satellites. The asteroid could change its orbit and cannon Earth in 2036.

The core target of the possible mission will be to clarify the exact trajectory of Apophis for up to 2036. The satellite will be equipped with a radioisotope power source with a buffer battery.

“From technical point of view the mission could be started for implementation from 2015,” the Academy said in the report.

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Asteroid Will Pass Closer To Earth Than Many Satellites

Press Release
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 15, 2012

CONTACT:
Mat Kaplan
Voice: 626-793-5100
E-mail: mat.kaplan@planetary.org

In less than a year, an asteroid that is half the size of a football field will pass within just a few thousand miles of our planet. The discovery of this object, dubbed 2012 DA14, was made possible by a Shoemaker Near Earth Object (NEO) grant provided by the Planetary Society.

The giant space rock was discovered on February 22, 2012 by La Sagra Observatory in southern Spain. One of the observatory’s telescopes had recently been upgraded through the Planetary Society grant. Its new camera enabled detection of fast moving objects like 2012 DA14 – requiring very fast imaging for discovery and determination of their paths. The upgraded instrument has far outperformed the Observatory’s other telescopes. It has found more than ten NEOs, along with a previously unknown comet.

At fifty meters across, 2012 DA14 is similar in size to the object that caused the Tunguska air burst over Siberia in 1908, leveling 2,000 square kilometers of forest. Fortunately, there is no danger of impact during the next pass of 2012 DA14.

“This asteroid is a wakeup call for the importance of defending the Earth from future asteroid impacts,” says Bill Nye, Chief Executive Officer of The Planetary Society. “Big impacts don’t happen often, but they will happen.”

2012 DA14 will come closest to Earth on February 15, 2013. It will zoom to within about 3.5 Earth radii or about 22,500 km from the Earth’s surface, well within the orbit of geostationary communications satellites (35,800 km). Current estimates are that it will be about magnitude 7 in brightness – not quite visible to the naked eye, but within reach of binoculars or a small telescope. It will fly across the sky at about one Moon diameter per minute.

Additional follow-up by observers around the world has resulted in this accurate prediction of the asteroid’s current orbit by scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Near Earth Object Program Office. Knowing the close approach is coming will allow astronomers to study the characteristics of the asteroid. A major goal will be greater refinement of its orbit so that future close approaches and even possible impacts can be predicted and prepared for.

Jaime Nomen and his colleagues at La Sagra Observatory have introduced observing strategies designed to improve the probability of discovering asteroids that larger surveys may miss. Nomen reports, “We try to find smaller objects located close to Earth that generally move at high angular speed. They may appear anywhere in the sky, even if that sky region had already been thoroughly searched just days before.”

The strategy paid off. With the new CCD telescope camera configured to shoot rapid, short exposures, Nomen and his colleagues captured 2012 DA14 as it moved across the sky at almost 11 arcseconds per minute. This is slower than a satellite but quite fast for a NEO. It’s equivalent to a lunar diameter every three hours. The asteroid was already heading away from Earth after passing the planet about a week before, and at much greater distance than next year’s encounter. Its path across the eastern sky, fast angular motion, quite faint (and fading) brightness, and high declination (far above the ecliptic plane in which most of the planets travel) could easily have allowed 2012 DA14 to escape undetected.

Planetary Society Gene Shoemaker grants are awarded to amateur observers, observers in developing countries, and professional astronomers who, with seed funding, can greatly increase their programs’ contributions to NEO research. The program, begun in 1997, is named for Gene Shoemaker, a highly respected leader in the study of impact structures, and an advocate for NEO discovery and tracking programs.

The Planetary Society supports several projects that are helping to find near Earth objects and test techniques that may allow humanity to deflect a NEO that is headed toward a potentially catastrophic impact. The Society is committed to planetary defense. “Discovery, follow-up, and characterization of asteroids enabled by our Shoemaker grants is one of our most gratifying rewards,” says Bruce Betts, the organization’s Director of Projects. “We want to help humanity avoid the world’s only preventable natural disaster. Astronomers like those at La Sagra Observatory are critical to that goal. Their discovery and next year’s close approach will result in a scientific and planetary defense treasure trove of data.”

The 2012 DA14 flyby in 2013 will also serve as a warm-up for a similar fly by in 2029 by the much larger Apophis, a 270-meter asteroid co-discovered by Shoemaker NEO grant winner Roy Tucker.

For more information, including an update on the discovery and follow-up from Jaime Nomen of La Sagra Observatory, visit http://planetary.org/programs/projects/neo_grants/

About the Planetary Society
The Planetary Society has inspired millions of people to explore other worlds and seek other life. Today, its international membership makes the non-governmental Planetary Society the largest space interest group in the world. Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman founded the Planetary Society in 1980. Bill Nye, a long time member of the Planetary Society’s Board, is now the CEO.

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