Doomsday asteroid on its way?

Forget about President Obama’s State of the Union Address, writes Ray Villard, news director for the Hubble Space Telescope, America’s real “Sputnik moment” should be attempting to deflect an asteroid currently hurtling toward Earth.

Earlier this year, Russian scientist Leonid Sokolov of St. Petersburg State University announced his calculations that the asteroid Apophis will pass within 18,000 miles of Earth, close enough to knock geosynchronous satellites out of the sky.

Villard warns, however, that when Apophis comes screaming by on Easter Sunday, April 13, 2036, there’s no guarantee it won’t stray from course and strike the planet.

“The bottom line is that asteroids are featherweight objects compared to other solar systems bodies. Gravitational forces and even the pressure of sunlight can shove them around,” Villard writes in an article for Discovery News. “There are so many dynamical uncertainties affecting asteroid trajectories that Apophis will haunt us right up to 2036, and well beyond.”

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And even though Sokolov suggests the chances of catastrophic impact are slim – believing the asteroid would likely disintegrate before striking Earth – he told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency “our task” is to develop “plans of action” should he be wrong.

That’s where Villard’s “Sputnik moment” idea comes in.

“In his State of The Union message before Congress last week, President Obama announced that this generation’s ‘Sputnik moment’ has arrived,” Villard writes. “He was referring to the United States’ need to invest in research and development to revive the economy and ensure future stability.

Ray Villard

“But the real Sputnik moment – when the Soviet Union established technological pre-eminence by hurtling the world’s first artificial satellite into Earth orbit – was an evolutionary game-changer,” he continues. “So here’s my Sputnik moment: Launch an international space program to ensure the long-term survival of the human species by building and testing a robust asteroid deflection capability.”

In other words, Villard recommends that sometime before Easter 2036, Earth develop a system for knocking Apophis off target.

Apparently, Villard isn’t the only one thinking the same thing.

According to another Discovery News article, a loose association of scientists and astronauts within the American Geophysical Union, or AGU, have been working on the problem for years.

In fact, a group called the Association of Space Explorers International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation, chaired by retired U.S. astronaut Russell Schweickart, have already submitted a study to the United Nations on the threat of “impacts from space,” possible warning systems and so forth.

Though Villard says Apophis isn’t massive enough to be “in the dinosaur-killer category,” he insists we be prepared to knock the rock off course, should it come closer than predicted.

Villard lists some of the ideas scientists have developed to get the job done:

  • The “hot spot” solution uses a mirror or laser to heat Apophis, boiling off material in one place that would then act as a jet to reroute the asteroid;
  • The “gravity tractor” involves flying a ship in formation with the asteroid to slowly allow gravity to alter its course;
  • Physically contacting Aphophis to “give it a nudge”;
  • Drilling nuclear powered rocket motors into the surface of the asteroid and then fire them off to alter its trajectory.

A Discovery News video about the anticipated earlier pass of Aphophis in 2029 and the methods considered for deflecting it, can be seen below:

Both Villard and Schweickart, however, repeat a common refrain among space scientists: Nothing can be done without funding.

“We don’t have the power to deflect hurricanes or shut off volcanoes. But we do have the technological smarts to prevent a ‘Space Katrina’ – the impact of Apophis that would unleash twice the energy of the 1883 eruption of the monster volcano Krakatoa,” Villard writes. “But do we have the political will and resources to undertake such a grand space project for all mankind?”

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