The House wants to save us from asteroid impacts

By Phil Plait | June 29, 2008 12:06 pm

In the new NASA appropriations bill passed by the House* (and must get matched with the Senate version) there is a line asking the NASA Administrator to look into seeing what they can do about Apophis.

Apophis is an asteroid that’ll pass pretty close to Earth in 2029; in fact it’ll be closer than our own geosynchronous satellites! It won’t hit, but its exact path is unknown; if it passes at just the right distance, the Earth’s gravity will warp the asteroid’s path just enough that the next time it comes in — in 2036 — it’ll hit.


A good thing to do is to plant a radio transponder on Apophis to be able to track it accurately and see what this thing will do in 2029 and 2036. That’s what the House line item says to do.

The Administrator shall issue requests for information on […] a low-cost space mission with the purpose of rendezvousing with, attaching a tracking device, and characterizing the Apophis asteroid, which scientists estimate will in 2029 pass at a distance from Earth that is closer than geostationary satellites…

That’s pretty fracking cool. NASA should be doing this anyway, but I hope that with Congress leaning on them they’ll make it happen.

*I can’t link directly to it as far as I can tell. You can read it by going to Thomas (the Congress search engine), searching on asteroid, clicking on "H.R.6063.RFS", then clicking on Section 803. Phew!

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Ray Kurzweil and Fark.


Comments (64)

  1. Vernon Balbert

    What’s really amazing to me is that Congress actually took some clever person’s idea and turned it into an action. This is unusually far sighted for Congress.

  2. Yoo

    Let’s just hope that it gets passed in the Senate. Apophis just comes too close for comfort to not track at the very least. “I hope it won’t hit” is an unsatisfactory answer when it could very well hit us in its second pass …

  3. Lucia

    Congress… doing something potentially… good?


  4. John Powell

    Too bad it’s probably coming in too fast for a landing. It would be uber-cool to plant a self-sustaining base/colony on Apophis.

  5. Shoeshine Boy

    Everyone complains about the government, but rarely does anyone point out when the act properly. Thanks for doing so, Phil.

  6. The chances are still like 1 in 46000 for the 2036 impact. It is low, but it’s a pretty close pass anyways.

  7. Doug Little

    How ’bout we plant some nanobots on the asteroid to slowly excavate it and eject the excavated matter into space to reduce the size of it. Now the only problem is to work out to to create self replicating nanobots.

  8. blf

    Are there any estimates on how soon before(? after?) the 2029 pass we’ll know whether or not it will(? has?) passed through the magic keyhole? I presume having a transponder should result in an accurate determination sooner? (In which case I also presume a mission to plant the transponder should be launched as soon as sensible?)

    The sooner a determination can be made, of course, the better. If the determination is that it will hit in 2036, and that determination is not made until 2029, then the planet’s only got five years to do something. Which is one reason the characterization is so important and interesting (and should also be done as soon as possible); that will more-or-less define what could be done. I presume, therefore, that launching a mission to characterize should be done as soon as practical?

    Whether or not the transponder mission, and the characterization mission, should (or could) be the same mission is not too clear (to me). If the transponder is critical (results in an accurate determination sooner?), then delaying it to work on the characterization experiments might not be wise?

    I am well aware the current estimate is that it will miss the keyhole. (Isn’t the current estimate of a hit in 2036 something like 1-in-c.500,000?)

  9. Huh. You mean that congress might actually do something useful? Neat.

  10. Tim G

    According to NASA’s latest estimates, the impact energy would be about 506 megatons. Previous estimates have been 1480, 880, and 400 megatons.

    Wikipedia has a map supposedly showing regions at risk of impact in 2036.

    I wonder if there is potential for more damage in the case of an ocean impact. The USGS claims that the surface energy release of the 2004 tsunami to be only about 25 megatons.

  11. Tyler Durden

    They should try to install a camera on it too. That way, if it does end up impacting Earth we’ll have some great news footage..

  12. 2036, that’s odd, we’re not getting ready for THAT election yet, are we? Why would congress care if nobody is paying them to, and it’s not an election issue? Very odd…

    Cool as hell!!! But odd.

  13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Yay! I hope this can be extended to other reoccurring orbiting risks – it should be a cinch to have individual transponder codes too, for the 1000 – 10 000 objects you would want to track. (You would want to know when a particular transponder stops working.)

    Btw, awfully small bottleneck for a 2036 hit. (Keyhole, whatever.)

    Are there any estimates on how soon before(? after?) the 2029 pass we’ll know whether or not it will(? has?) passed through the magic keyhole?

    According to Wikipedia, without transponder it took 2 years between the 2004 detection and 2006 downgrade for the risk of the 2029 passage. With transponder, a better known trajectory (above all I assume, foreknowledge of the keyhole) and mass model, and a shorter time until the risk passage: I dunno. 😛

    Btw, it could be that the transponder helps modeling the asteroid (by its rotation and its reaction to solar pressure and heating et cetera).

  14. “rendezvousing”? Eek!

  15. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Tyler, that is a great idea too.

    If NASA could sell risk options to a press agency they could finance some of the more risky objects. But a possible ROI sucks, say 50 10^6 USD for a 1:5 10^5 risk gives you a meager 100 USD a pop. That would get you one cheap camera and a lousy cup of coffee.

  16. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Etienn, what do you have against heavenly bodies rendezvousing?

    Savoir-vivre, and all that jazz.

  17. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    D’oh! Etienne, I mean; slip of my fingers.

  18. Jeffersonian

    It would be easy to think it was woo-woo if you didn’t have a statement from an expert such as Phil, wouldn’t you? The US is thinking for the whole world on this one; aren’t Republicans xenophobic in that regard? Oh, wait, this resolution is sponsored by Mark Udall.

  19. 2036??? OMFSM, that’s the same year that the 32-bit computer calendar runs out!!! Coincidence???

    …um, well, yeah, I guess it is.

  20. MKR

    There you go. 😛

  21. 506 megatons? Pfft. Big deal. That’s like half the size of the impact crater caused by Rosie O’Donnell getting out of bed in the morning.

    And if it is gonna hit in 2036, I’m going to blame scientists for putting the transponder on it and upsetting the orbit, (damn scientists messing with nature).

    It’ll give Al Gore something to whine about when the oceans don’t rise 20 feet, and hurricanes haven’t killed us all. But that will actually be a good thing, because I suspect I’m going to be sick of him saying, “Any day now …”, after 30 years or so. You want some variety in your alarmism to keep it interesting I always say.

  22. justcorbly

    >>”NASA should be doing this anyway…”

    Yes, they should. A lot of people, though, seem to think NASA can go off on its own and launch some major new project, with the funding apparently coming from yard sales or something. NASA can propose new initiatives to the White House, but nothing will happen until the President and Congress act.

    NASA’s funding has remained relatively stable for so long that it seem they’ve grown accustomed to assuming that paying for something new means less money on something else.

  23. T.phillips

    We just need to train some oil rig workers to pilot a craft onto the object, drill a hole, and then plant a nuke.

  24. Can’t they steer this thing into the Middle East? We could get rid of THE trouble spot and excavate the oil for us.

  25. DGavin

    There are some very good (intelligent) people on the House Science Committe. Our states Rep. happens to be the head of it, and we have been plauging him about our concerns of allowing anti-science into school science cirriculms.

    He even sends personally written responses back at times, and not form letters.

    This actually doesn’t surprise me, as i know for a fact our Rep has been looking for some valid justification to through some more money -at- Nasa, instead of continually taking it away from them.

    To all those gainsayers that have been pitching a fit over the years about -why- should we be spending any money on Nasa. Well here is one really good reason.

    To save your buts from an asteriod collision!

  26. I’ll just wait for SG-1 to take out Apophis. They’ve done it before. (I know, it’s the obvious joke).

  27. Kevin

    I know someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I swear to FSM that I hear/read that the latest orbital elements show that Apophis will miss the keyhole on the 2029 pass. Hmm…

    Ironic we are talking about this today, as tomorrow (June 30th) is the 100th anniversary of the Tunguska event.

  28. Pop

    I supprised they didn’t want to pass a law prohibiting Apophis from hitting earth. After all, more laws will surely be the answer. But then, if Apophis does hit, someone will have to arrested for violating a Fed law.

    Turn it all over to private industry. Provide for a completion bonus and it’ll get done.

  29. @MKR: generates temporary URLs for many searches, so the link you posted is no longer variable. There’s an overview page at however.

  30. And as soon as I hit “Submit Comment” I noticed that should have been “available.” Where’s the preview option, anyway?

  31. Wow. I figured our government would wait until at least 2025 to start caring. Go them! Now if only we could get an internationally funded mission, since this is a potential global disaster, not just a national one.

  32. @Torbjörn

    “rendezvousing” is absolutely horrible to someone who has French as his first language. :) Especially if that same person teaches French…

    It’s the first time I encounter an English adaptation of a French word that makes me physically cringe. Meh.

  33. Should the asteroid get on collision course for 2036, what are the realistic options for deflecting/destroying it?

  34. justcorbly

    >>”Turn it all over to private industry. Provide for a completion bonus and it’ll get done.”

    That would be the same private industry that’s still trying to sell me an SUV while it scams up the price of gas?

    We need more than just taking out one potential asteroid threat. We need a tested, permanent, capability to take out any asteroid threat, including something really big that sneaks up on us. That takes more than just giving a prize to some corporation for pulling a one-off. (In any case, only two or three corporations are capable of doing that, so the competitive benefits of turning to private industry would be minimal.)

  35. Thomas Siefert

    If it turns out that we are on collision course in 2036, it have to be given a slight nudge. We could some people up there with a couple of jack hammers to start chipping away and have them throw the chips off the asteroid in order to change its course as a crude mass driver.
    A threat of annihilation should be a good motivation to finance development of a space program to do something like that.

  36. This is plain insanity (and I’m surprised that Phil didn’t catch it): For a small fraction of the cost of such a tagging mission, the asteroid radar operations at Arecibo could be funded for many years – and studies have shown that this would retire the (already extremely tiny!) impact risk in 2036 quickly.

  37. Tony M.

    Couldn’t you send an Ion thruster to latch onto it? Seeing as it won’t make another pass for 7 years, an ion drive would have enough time to properly alter the course of the asteroid. It doesn’t need as much fuel as a conventional rocket, and we don’t need to send people there for it to work.

  38. Meeee

    For some reason, I find the fact that they emphasise “low-cost mission” to be hilarious.

    For the first time in a long, long time, we have a potential asteroid impact that could have serious consequences for everyone on Earth (and it’s not something the media has just made up), and rather than stress the importance of the success of such a mission, they stress the fact that they’re spending as little money on it as possible.

  39. One Eyed Jack

    What is amazing is that this bill is under consideration during our current administration. Wouldn’t a prayer vigil be more characteristic of our current fascist theocracy?


  40. Jeebus H Hyskos, how many times do we have to kill Apophis before he doesn’t come back? 😉

  41. Geophysicist

    Call me a pessimist, but I can see how this will play out. Apophis would have been perfectly harmless apart from the slight impulse imparted to it from the impact of the tracking beacon. This will be enough to alter its trajectory to cause impact in 2036. The Government of the day will see this as the end times sent by God, which as every one knows is a GOOD thing. NASA will then have all funding for intervention programs withdrawn…

  42. Geophysicist:

    This isn’t The New Outer Limits, just so you know. Not everything we do will automatically lead to the end of the species. 😛

  43. Daniel Fischer: actually, you’re right about Arecibo. But would that give us an accurate enough measurement to nail down Apopohis’s keyhole aim? And can Arecibo even see the asteroid? It may not be at the right declination. I’m away from home and can’t make phone calls. Stupid cell phone.

  44. Radwaste

    I’m waiting for a graph. The axes would be “Congressional Bill Passage” and “Hit Likelihood”. The title would be “Probability Comparison for the Apophis Event”.

  45. Geophysicist, that’s the first thing I thought of too.

    As far as changing the trajectory, isn’t it the case that if you put something along side the the rock early enough gravity will do its thing and change the trajectory of the rock without having to land on it, or blow it up or anything?

  46. Murff

    “…a low-cost space mission”

    Billions of lives could be at stake as far as they know, but all they ever think about is money.

  47. Murff, didn’t one or two of the big auto manufacturers have an issue a few years ago where dozens of people were being killed by some fault and the bean-counters decided it was cheaper to pay compensation per death than it was to actually fix the fault?

    It may be an urban legend but I heard that an astronaut was asked what was the last thing he thought of before launch and he replied that the rocket went to the lowest tender.

    So yes, all they think about is money.

  48. Blizno

    “Doug Littleon 29 Jun 2008 at 12:45 pm
    How ’bout we plant some nanobots on the asteroid to slowly excavate it and eject the excavated matter into space to reduce the size of it. Now the only problem is to work out to to create self replicating nanobots.”

    I like it! I would change the mission to land a half-dozen robots that spread huge solar wings and drill holes with lasers. The robots could drill a few meters each time the asteroid rotates to put their solar panels in sunlight. They would re-aim after drilling all the way through.

    After enough years of drilling holes, the “whiffle-ball” nickel-iron asteroid will explode into a hundred small chunks rather than remaining a single nickel-iron world-killer when it hits the atmosphere. Bruce Willis would be proud!

  49. Blizno

    “shaneon 29 Jun 2008 at 7:59 pm
    Murff, didn’t one or two of the big auto manufacturers have an issue a few years ago where dozens of people were being killed by some fault and the bean-counters decided it was cheaper to pay compensation per death than it was to actually fix the fault?
    It may be an urban legend but I heard that an astronaut was asked what was the last thing he thought of before launch and he replied that the rocket went to the lowest tender.
    So yes, all they think about is money.”

    That’s standard business practice. The calculation is to either spend the money to make a product safe or to stash away enough cash to pay off expected lawsuits resulting from product failures. The second option is often cheaper.
    I’ve heard lots of shouting from the ‘Pubs about “frivolous lawsuits”. Funny, they don’t describe what makes a lawsuit “frivolous” and never, ever mention a lawsuit that isn’t “frivolous”. I can only conclude that the ‘Pubs believe that ALL lawsuits are frivolous and all lawsuits should be thrown out of court.

    That would allow businesses to save millions of dollars they now spend making sure that their products are safe.

  50. Mena

    Penn & Teller will be taking on NASA on their show with the unmentionable name (around here) this week. I wonder if they will touch on any of these subjects.

    Mike Marsh wrote:

    And as soon as I hit “Submit Comment” I noticed that should have been “available.” Where’s the preview option, anyway?

    It’s in not pressing the submit button without previewing it and hoping for the best with the closing of tags unfortunately. I also think that we need that and that the comments either need to be threaded or numbered in order to keep track of what we have already read without having to skim over all of the comments until we get to new ones.

  51. Kevin White

    This is interesting — I just watched “Impact Earth” yesterday (which I found decent and worth the 90 minutes (with commercials fast-forwarded through). It involved a comet cluster on an extremely rarefied orbit (such that the first of the comet fragments was missed by the Near Earth Object team).

    Aren’t a few other countries also working on Apophis-monitoring probe missions? Somebody mentioned an international effort, and I definitely think that should be the approach here.

  52. Dave Hall

    I am not amazed that the House would pass such a bill. I mean, there is a real need for better funding for NASA, and there is a potential threat from Apophis. So on the surface the bill looks good.

    But then there is now an immense straw man for the anti-science and/or anti gummint types to attack.

    There will be those who see Apophis as a space-borne threat as far-fetched as Al Gore’s claims of Global Warming, and we’re wasting too much money in a non-existant problem. And we need to be spending more money protecting ourselves from terrorists

    Then there will be those saying the gummint shouldn’t be getting into the business of protectin’ the people, and that KBR or Haliburton can do it for a fraction of the cost. That is a problem we are now facing in the middle east: Privitization rarely benefits anyone except the contractors and their shareholders.

  53. Drakhen

    As far as the low cost aspect of it goes, remember who they are trying to sell it to. If they can sell it as a low cost mission to the bean counters in congress they’d be more likely to approve an earmark for it, even if it didn’t mean a bit of pork for their district…. If that’s what it takes to make it happen, more power to them. Politics at work!

  54. nolachief

    Daniel/BA: I was wondering that myself. Undoubtedly Apophis is going to be the world’s most popular telescope target through at least 2029, so even if Arecibo can’t see it, there are other telescopes that can and will be able to glean more orbital track data as the keyhole date gets closer. It might be more productive in the long run to invest the money in more ground and space-based telescopes to keep an eye on the thing and maybe happen to see the rock that’s gonna blindside us while our attention is on the decoy. :)
    Not to mention the other science that would be able to be done.

    On the other hand, I could see the transponder planting flight as a dress rehearsal for rendezvousing and planting a nuke or whatever on Apophis should the need arise. But NASA’s already good at landing/throwing stuff at random space rocks, so I dunno.

  55. I’ll ask again: what are the realistic options for heading off disaster?

  56. materia7

    Keep in mind this hasn’t been passed in the Senate yet. Yet, considering how difficult it can be to have a bill ratified, its really very exciting that the bill has made it this far. Congress seems to be taking the topic seriously.

  57. Todd W.

    I don’t see what all the concern is. I mean, the world’s going to end in 2012, right? So, we don’t need to worry about some little bit o’ rock that would otherwise do us serious harm.

  58. Al

    @ Shane:

    That was the infamous Ford Pinto: unfortunately for Ford, one of the litigants pursuing compensation got hold of the bean-counter’s letter setting out the calculation and showed it to the jury.

    Suffice to say the amount awarded upset the calculations a bit…

  59. Hugh

    #shane – Not sure about how prevalent it is in reality, but that was one of the points made in Fight Club.

  60. Re the Pinto, yes, it was all a myth, unfortunately the scare was very real. Someone got it into his head that it would explode when rear-ended. Two million such Pintos were on the road, and their accident statistics showed no explosions and no increased risk of fire from rear-end collisions when compared to other cars on the road. Unfortunately, this was only done years later, so the damage had already been done and the expense of the recall long since lost.

    The bit that was read out in court was taken out of context. They were saying that the risks were so minimal that they didn’t have to worry about it. What they meant was that it wasn’t any more dangerous than making the car any other way, but it was made out to sound like they were covering up this hideous danger with their car. They weren’t.

    This is what scares get you. This is what a lack of skepticism gets you. And the sad thing is, 20 years after the Pinto was shown to be every bit as safe as any other car made at the time, people are STILL trotting it out as this horrible death machine.

  61. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Seems my previous comment didn’t make the transition.

    @ Ettienne:

    rendezvousing” is absolutely horrible to someone who has French as his first language.

    Understandable. You wouldn’t want to know how we mangle French either.

    But at least ménage à trois is a French contribution that is carefully preserved the world over. 😛

  62. Luc Pronovost

    Why a governement that is preoccupied to spend billions to kill humanity, would spend a f..king dime to save it…

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