Russia Is Developing a Secret Plan to Divert a Non-Threatening Asteroid

By Andrew Moseman | December 30, 2009 11:34 am

apophis_orbitYou may remember back in October that NASA scientists downgraded the threat of the asteroid Apophis slamming into the Earth from remote to even more remote. Thanks to refined computation of the object’s motion, astronomers changed their estimate of the chances for a 2036 collision from an already unlikely 1 in 45,000 chance to a further long shot of 1 in 250,000. Well, that wasn’t enough to ease the head of Russia’s space program, Anatoly Perminov, who today said his nation would plan an ambitious space program to spare the Earth from certain doom, and would eventually ask other world powers to join Russia on this quest.

Without mentioning NASA findings, Perminov said that he heard from a scientist that Apophis is getting closer and may hit the planet. “I don’t remember exactly, but it seems to me it could hit the Earth by 2032,” Perminov said [AP]. Truly, Perminov didn’t remember exactly: Apophis makes a close but harmless pass of our planet in 2029, when it could come within 20,000 miles of Earth, and then swings by again in 2036 (the visit for which NASA downgraded the danger to the remote four-in-a-million).

Despite his chronological uncertainly, Perminov was certain something must be done. “We are talking about people’s lives,” Perminov was quoted by news agencies as telling the radio station. “Better to spend a few hundred million dollars to create a system for preventing a collision than to wait until it happens and hundreds of thousands of people are killed,” he said [AFP].

Apophis, discovered in 2004, is almost 900 feet long. NASA originally estimated the chance of a 2029 impact at 2.7 percent—that being before its scientists had the opportunity to refine their math through further observations. They also expect the minuscule probability of 2068 Apophis collision, already listed at just 1 in 330,000, to diminish as they continue to learn about the object’s trajectory.

Perminov offers no hint as to how Russia plans to deal with Apophis, except to say it would not destroy the asteriod [sic]. “No nuclear explosions (will be carried out), everything (will be done) on the basis of the laws of physics,” he says [USA Today]. Russia is beginning its project in secret, he says, but despite failing to mention NASA’s numbers on the actual threat, he expects space experts from the United States, China, and elsewhere to join in on an international operation to save the planet.

Related Content:
80beats: Will NASA’s Next Step Be an Astronaut Rendezvous with an Asteroid?
80beats: Scientists Pick Up the Pieces (Literally) of an Asteroid Spotted Last October
DISCOVER: What To Do Before the Asteroid Strikes
Bad Astronomy: Apophis Danger Downgraded
Bad Astronomy: We’re All Doomed… Oh Wait, No We’re Not

Image: UH/IA

MORE ABOUT: asteroids, NASA, Russia
  • Matthew Weflen

    Yikes. Someone in the international community needs to put a stop to this.

    Knowing the Russians, they’ll screw up monumentally, and set the previously harmless asteroid on a direct course for my house.

  • Paul Shin

    And I thought the Cold War was over!

  • Mike Borrello

    It’s about time a world power is taking serious steps towards engineering a defense system. My New Year’s wish is that other nations will recognize the importance and join the project. Apophis was just a wake-up call and luck happened to be on our side. Next time we might not be so lucky. Earth’s geological history indicates an impact is inevitable. We need to be watching our skies much more thoroughly, and effective means for mitigating collisions need to be developed, tested and in place well before the critical need arises. With each day we wait we seal mankind’s fate.

  • rabidmob

    I do support the idea of having a plan to avert a collision with dangerous sized objects.

    The Russian announcement seems rather dubious considering other recent Russian political activities.

    I wonder what the best way to dispose of one is.

  • bud tillson

    much like global warming if we don’t do something (spend lots of money on science) we are doomed. Russians seem to be going down the right path, develop a world ending event, twist it just enough to catch headlines, and hungry scientist will jump on the band wagon, and begin to prove they might be right. Watch for NASA to reconsider the offer and spend some money….

  • Robert Willis

    Wow Matthew, maybe the asteroid should hit your house, at least that would stop you from making any further ignorant, xenophobic, or moronic comments.

  • Jimbo

    3 Cheers for Russia’s foresight & humanistic, take charge action.
    We in the US are blaise about this, given so many Armageddon films from hollywood and NASA’s dissing this very real threat: What about orbital perturbations over the next 20 years that could increase that collision probability & make us all blanche white: coulda, woulda, shoulda…. ?
    Developing the technology, in the aftermath of the Halley’s comet rendevous is considerably easier, & should solidify an international program of detecting AND deflecting comets & asteroids that threaten us.
    Lets take action, & invite the ESA & Japan to join with the Russians, forming an international consortium to make this happen.
    Carl Sagan would be smiling !

  • Eric

    Good on RUSSIA! treat this problem like we treat vaccinations! use this event with a small chance of disaster, to prepare for an event with certain disaster.

    @ Mathew and Paul: I thought Discover mag. was aimed towards more educated people. Please enlighten me as to why such a powerful nation houses some of the most ignorant people?

    @ Jimbo: thanks for hitting the nail on the head. I Listen to ALOT of audio books that pertain to possible outcomes of a Russian pre-preemptive attacks, all scary no matter the outcome, but I KNOW full well that they are just stories, and dont let them alter my opinion towards other cultures. Everyone else should do the same and detach themselves from events of the past, media hyperbole and propaganda. Logic should reign supreme.

    cheers from Canada EH!

  • Bob

    Well. There is a chance..and what is the worse we can do..Learn how to redriect one of we ever really do need to.

  • Jobas

    Wow Robert, maybe the asteroid should hit your house, at least that would stop you from making any further ignorant, trolling, or moronic comments.

  • Jobas

    I think we should just put all our money into AI research and be done with research forever. Think about it.

  • Fodderbutwiser

    I’m in total agreement with Eric and any others who believe that we need SOME plan to react to these types of threats, and the means to divert them. Right now, we can barely identify what is coming towards the Earth. In the past year, three or more sizeable asteroids approached our planet. They were observed within only hours of closest approach.
    Seems a bit mediocre, huh?
    Oh, and presently we can do nothing about them.

  • Adam

    I agree we need a better system to address these threats, but this guy should not be in charge. There is no room for “I don’t remember exactly” in aerospace technology.

  • alanborky

    Yes, well, at this time the Russians may well have only altruistic intentions, but what a perfect excuse for building major weapons capable space platforms in orbit over us, platforms which later, more politically aggressive regimes could put to other uses.

    It may even be the Russians’ apparent openness on this issue is actually intended as an “ah-ah” signal to other nations they’ve caught wind of planning Space-borne militaristic manoeuvres of their own.

  • T. Emerson Coleman

    just wondering…what is this thing doing out there? is it an eccentric orbiting satellite of the sun? …the earth? …or just hangin’ around? either way, i’m not too comfortable about mucking around with it.

  • Mike Borrello

    For detailed information that developed on Apophis, link to and search on “apophis”.

  • Mike

    For now perhaps we should be more concerned with increasing rainforest destruction, over population and pollution of the air, oceans, land and fresh water instead of spending billions on something that might happen decades from now. Many of the above issues could lead to much human/animal suffering and misery.

  • Kevin

    “everything (will be done) on the basis of the laws of physics,”. It’s OK everyone, they’re going to use physics!

  • badnicolez

    While I think we (all of us inhabiting the planet) need some sort of system to deal with potential future extinction events, this is obviously a great excuse for the Russians to build a space-based weapons system without engendering too much worldwide opposition. The guy in charge over there is former KGB, and for many of those guys the Cold War hasn’t yet ended.

  • Brian Too

    I dunno. The odds seem to be smallish, but the reality is if we hit on the 1/250,000 outcome people will legitimately ask what was done to prevent disaster. Millions could die.

    I’d say the better rationale to pursue this is to build a capability for the future. We’re talking about trying to alter the course of asteroids that weigh potentially millions of tons. We don’t yet know the practicalities of such a need–is the object solid or not? Where is the centre of gravity and how do we interact with it? Is a gravity tractor a realistic option or is it just a theorists fantasy? Do we push or pull?

    I’d hate to have a time come when we need a 100% certain outcome and yet not have any experience whatsoever with moving one of these objects.

  • Jonathan

    I look forward to an asteroid hitting the earth, because then there will be shorter lines at the department stores during Christmas rush.

    Well, I might not be in line either, but I guess that’s a price worth paying for shorter lines …

  • Iain Ball


    No, Carl Sagan would definitely NOT be smiling. In his book “Pale Blue Dot”, he wrong a treatise about the dangers he saw in the proliferation of asteroid deflection technologies. In his view, the risks of such a technology being abused to cause deliberate harm were far greater than the risks of a natural asteroid impact.

  • Dave E.

    I thought we already had a defense, Bruce Willis :]

  • Liza

    We don’t know yet the implications of early deflection of an asteriod, such as creating more risk; we don’t know about all the other bodies out there that will be threats. Some other reports say that an asterioid hit would destroy most of the earth-we will all be in the same boat then, gone. Who will know?

  • mike

    I know I’m a bit late to the party but…

    This presents a huge opportunity for a lot of good science. Not least of which would be a presence on what is essentially a “free” space vehicle. Imagine what we can gain from a “base” on this rock with imaging, sensor, energy collectors and broadcasting? I wonder if any of the probes that have been built or partially built can be “repurposed” to be planted on Apophis?

    Clearly, a better understanding of the trajectory/orbit of this rock is necessary before a knee-jerk repositioning is done. However, given the possibility of a “solar sail” or similar gentle techniques, this is a project that should be done. Watching Apophis for a few more orbits and collecting data would allow fairly precise repositioning and collection of additional data after!

  • Underspot Bay

    Perminov is silly. LMAO! He’s still living the Cold War between USA (in this case, NASA) and his Russian agency. i’m not american, but poor Perminov! LMAO!

    Che! I wanna laugh at him right now! Can I? 😛


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