In Russia, Apophis impacts YOU!

By Phil Plait | December 30, 2009 11:43 am

Artist drawing of an asteroid entering Earth's atmosphereI don’t spend a lot of time worrying about actual asteroid impacts — I think about them, but the odds of a big impact are too low to panic about. We should be concerned, and absolutely we should take steps in case we find The Big One headed our way. But I sometimes wonder if I should worry more about our reactions to potential impacts. Or, more specifically, Russia’s reaction.

Apophis is an asteroid, a chunk of rock over 200 meters across orbiting the Sun. The problem is, the orbit of Apophis crosses that of the Earth. If the two are in the same place at the same time, well, bang! It’s big enough to blow up with the force of several of hundred megaton bombs. That’s not enough to wipe out life on Earth, but it’s certainly enough to do a whole lot of damage, and if it happens over a city… well.

In April 2029 Apophis will pass within a few thousand kilometers of the Earth’s surface. It won’t hit, but Earth’s gravity will change the orbit of the asteroid. If the asteroid passes us at just the right distance — in a region of space a few hundred meters across called the keyhole — it’ll swing back in seven years and hit us.

We don’t know the exact orbit of Apophis well enough to know for sure how close it’ll pass in 2029; we can only assign probabilities. The odds of it hitting the keyhole are pretty low, though: about one in 250,000 (downgraded from 1:45,000 recently as better orbital determinations were made).

Enter the Russian space agency. Anatoly Perminov, the head of the agency, was recently quoted in an AP news article that he wants to consider putting together a mission to move it out of the way, making sure it doesn’t hit. I’m all for that! What worries me is this quotation:

Without mentioning NASA findings [of downgraded odds of an impact], 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.

Now, I know he’s not an astronomer, but he does run a national space agency. I’d feel a whole lot better about his organizing a meeting to deflect this rock if a) he had the date right (it cannot hit before 2036, and the odds then are very low), and 2) he could actually, y’know, name his source.

Yikes.

Now, maybe he was misquoted by the AP. Or maybe it was out of context. And again, I don’t expect the head of the space agency to be on top of every detail; it could simply be an honest mistake with the date. But I am not particularly happy when someone in that position bases a decision at least partly because he heard it from some guy he knows but can’t remember who or when.

Did I say yikes before? Yeah.

I do think governments should take this seriously. I also know that as of right now, NASA is not taking this seriously enough. Perhaps if Russia gets this ball rolling, and other countries (like India, China, and Japan) join in, then NASA will be forced to take a better look at this situation. I know I was being a little snarky above (this is a blog, after all), but in the end some good may come of this. We just don’t know enough about asteroids and how to push them out of the way. We need to set up and fly missions to a few near-Earth asteroids to understand them better and add to our knowledge of their composition, structure, and behavior.

Theory is all well and good, but nothing beats some good practical experience. And while I dread the day when an announcement of a statistically significant likelihood of impact for a rock is announced, I’d be a whole lot happier and more comfortable if we had a dozen missions to asteroids already under our belt when that happens. Even if they got their start with this sketchy quote from the head of the Russian space agency.

Read more about this on Discover Magazine’s 80 Beats blog.

Comments (107)

  1. Elmar_M

    I think that the people that are affraid that exploding an asteroid into smaller pieces would just spread the damage over a larger area, forget about the fact that smaller pieces loose a lot of mass during reentry. The smaller the piece the bigger the surface area in comparison. Further blowing it up will also cause the pieces to be of a very rugged irregular shape, which should also increase the surface area.
    All that should make them loose plenty of mass during reentry. Enough to make them come down with very little harm done (a small enough piece will be slowed down to terminal velocity during reentry, so all its energy from speed will be gone and only the mass will have an effect also).
    So I still think that nuking the s**t out of such a thing would be the best and easiest solution

  2. Erasmussimo

    But I am not particularly happy when someone in that position bases a decision at least partly because he heard it from some guy he knows but can’t remember who or when.

    He read it on a blog somewhere…

  3. Sarg

    The Russian version of Armaggedon!

    Actually, that thought scares me way more than the poor asteroid…

  4. Okay, so we have an asteroid that crosses our orbit. Does that mean we have not cleared our orbital neighborhood? Ahhh! Earth’s no longer a planet? :P

  5. Elias Tandel

    Nuk’em up! Hahaha. In fact, I wonder if the explosion would be naked-eye-visible from Earth.

  6. Garfield

    Yikes indeed.

    Carl Sagan once said something to the effect that we should be very careful in our approach to developing the technology to divert asteroids away from Earth, because it would also mean we’d be developing the technology to divert them TOWARD the Earth.

  7. Instead of pushing it out of the way a better idea would be to capture it and get it into Earth’s orbit. 8 million cubic meters of high grade Iron in orbit could be used to build a very nice space station.
    With a 19 year span to plan and build the hardware for a capture mission it could be done, or change its orbit to put it into a better position for a capture mission in ’36.

  8. T_U_T

    because it would also mean we’d be developing the technology to divert them TOWARD the Earth.

    I don’t think so. It is much easier to make something miss than to make it hit.

  9. Todd W., Pluto defender, just made me laugh out loud :D

    This is likely a decision not fully made by the head of the agency, this explains the awkwardness of his answer, but does not justify it, he should get his facts right!. I think russians can express themselves in odd manners sometimes, but the core, the scientific validity of their assertions remains pristine.

  10. [Comment deleted as I read more carefully. Nothing to see, move along.]

  11. Joe

    @8: I think he’s referring to the idea of exploding an asteroid and causing more, smaller pieces to fall to Earth rather than exploding it away from us.

  12. I saw this on Yahoo News and came over to get Phil Plait’s reaction. I agree that the head of the Russian space agency ought to be more precise about his sources.

    What really worries me about this is that Russia, along with the entire rest of the human race, has no idea what it’s DOING here! I’m concerned that their “well-meant” effort to keep the asteroid from hitting earth will actually increase the odds that Apophis, or a piece of it, will in fact come sailing back around and smack us. I believe Russia is grandstanding for political gain here. They feel they (like Rodney Dangerfield) “don’t get no respect,” and they’d love to be the savior of the human race. I hope they don’t end up being the opposite; and I seriously hope T_U_T is right that it’s easier to make something miss than to make it hit.

  13. Matt

    We should capture the asteroid and insert it into orbit around the Earth. This will give us some experience in modifying the orbits of smallish asteroids, provide us with an entire asteroid in Earth orbit to study, and it may actually have exploitable resources. Bring in the Steel.

  14. CW

    I was also eager to Phil’s reaction. In his book, Phil said that Apophis will be closer to the Earth than some of our man-made satellites! Which, I love to mention to people to see them spit the soda out of their mouths in bewilderment.

    It does make me wonder if some kind of international agreement needs to be made that basically forces countries that want to respond to Earth-approaching objects to do so in colloboration with other countries. That way, we can avoid having one country do something (and possibly make a mistake) that effects everyone.

  15. Paul M

    Interesting – I wonder if someone at the Toronto Star is following your blog (4th paragraph from the end).

    http://www.thestar.com/news/sciencetech/article/744268–giant-asteroid-to-pass-earth-at-close-range?bn=1

  16. Saying 2032 sounds like genius to me. Now he knows that the worst that can happen is that he gets the credit for delaying the impact by 4 years; the best, that he gets the credit for averting it completely. And all without the tiresome necessity of spending the funding on an actual mission.

  17. Well, this idea of an orbiting asteroid is really nice. Anyway, either if we want to move them away or put somewhere between lagrangian points or similar, I think we need to act early, asap. Because the only way I see to move such a giant is some kind of highly efficient, but terribly slow, ion propulsion, either solar or nuclear driven.

  18. We need a lot of experience with adjusting the orbits of asteroids, just in case we find the Big One. However, I’m not sure we should start that process with an asteroid that is going to pass by the earth by such a slim margin. We don’t know a lot about manipulating orbits yet and our first attempts might not end up the way that we want. Perhaps we should start with one with plenty of room for error instead of one that could crash in to the earth if we forget to convert our measurements to metric.

  19. Joe Meils

    Possible good things to come out of this:
    1. international cooperation.
    2. shared tech and engineering
    3. shared cost of an asteroid mission
    4. practice for one that actually might hit us in the future.
    5. possible revival of the Orion nuclear pulse drive engine.*
    6. advancing ion drive*
    7. testing the idea that a “flying in formation” craft could influence the orbit.*

    * depending on the approach we want to take.

  20. Elias Tandel

    The amount of iron in that big baby is economically interesting. It would be awesome if we could stop harming our own environment and start digging a huge flying mine.

  21. Jamie F.

    In 2007, the chances of keyhole were downgraded even further to 1 in 12.3 million.

    I’m really wondering why this story is making that much news. Sounds like saber rattling to me. Without a clear voice speaking with authority about known projects this “announcement” is more like a sticky note in the world’s locker – Do you like me, yes or no? Signed, Russia.

  22. LOL @ Jamie F. I was thinking the same thing, but you summed it up more humerously!

  23. Alaskana

    Sounds like a good time to start up a SETI-like program, but instead of employing millions of personal computers to search for ET, we could put them to use simulating the many asteroid diversion strategies proposed thus far. Then narrow down and focus on the strategies that best favor human survival. :)

    Of course, to perform more precise simulations, we will need accurate data on the physical/behavioral nature of the asteroids themselves.

    On the other hand maybe we should just throw in the towel, figure out what city it’s going to vaporize and start marketing the impact site as the world’s largest gravel pit.

  24. Do you have some math on Apophis and what it would take to “push” it?

  25. Tyoma

    Unfortunately, he wasn’t misquoted. Shame on me here where the head of the space agency talks such nonsense…

  26. Ivan

    exactly. id love to see us “practice” diverting asteroids.

  27. Chip

    @15: markogts wrote: “Because the only way I see to move such a giant is some kind of highly efficient, but terribly slow, ion propulsion, either solar or nuclear driven.”
    @16: Justin Ogleby wrote: “We need a lot of experience with adjusting the orbits of asteroids, just in case we find the Big One.”

    There might be a way to alter an asteroid’s course on short notice but it has not been proven or tested. A deployed stretchable screen in space, like a large unfurled net, intercepts the asteroid and stretches on impact. Somewhat akin the linked fencing seen along mountain roads that stretches to slow down boulders rolling downhill. During the few seconds of impact, the resistance of the screen against at least 50% of the surface of the asteroid applies a force that changes its momentum and alters the trajectory. The angle of impact of the stretching screen or several screens in succession is configured so as to place the asteroid outside the “keyhole” zone. The screen itself is made of lightweight thin carbon fibers engineered to offer resistance on impact on the large scale of several kilometers so as to envelope the asteroid. The screen could be deployed with small rockets. Its only purpose is to offer resistance by stretching at the moment of impact. It might be possible to calculate how much force is applied by knowing the mechanical action of the stretching screen itself, its overall mass and the mass and trajectory of the asteroid.

  28. Burninator

    Who needs thermonuclear weapons when we have Aerosmith’s sweet sweet melodies to deflect the asteroid into a harmless trajectory? Just a few minutes of “I don’t want to miss a thing” will be enough to send Aphophis screaming into another orbital plane.

  29. T_U_T

    @8: I think he’s referring to the idea of exploding an asteroid and causing more, smaller pieces to fall to Earth rather than exploding it away from us.

    Unless you blast it less than a few days before impact, the debris will spread out on trajectories that all pass through the point of explosion, almost none of them crossing earth orbit at all. If you do it months before impact, or you destroy a non earth crossing asteroid, the chance that some big chunk will hit earth is almost nil. There is lot of space there, and earth is a negligibly small target. And even if some chunk really headed our way, there is no problem repeating the same thing again, this time with a much smaller rock, which can be easily destroyed by a much smaller blast, or if you use the same warhead, can be completely pulverized.

  30. Aubrey Cohen
  31. MattF

    Elmar_M: All that should make them loose plenty of mass during reentry. Enough to make them come down with very little harm done (a small enough piece will be slowed down to terminal velocity during reentry, so all its energy from speed will be gone and only the mass will have an effect also).

    You’re forgetting about conservation of energy.

    If a big rock hitting the Earth would mess up our climate in a serious way, lots of little rocks dissipating their energy as heat while they fall could still mess up our climate in a serious way. The energy doesn’t magically go away just because the rocks are smaller and vaporizing and/or falling more slowly.

    Elmar_M: So I still think that nuking the s**t out of such a thing would be the best and easiest solution

    Even if that means sending a whole lot of little hot rocks our way, with a little extra radioactivity thrown in as a bonus, possibly spread around in the atmosphere in meteoric dust?

    Nukes are sexy, I’ll admit, but they really shouldn’t be used unless we’re pretty sure that fragmentation is not an issue. Something as small as 35 meters across can still make it all the way down to the ground, and be darned hard to track.

  32. This is Russian space science we’re talking about here. Watch them steer Apophis towards Earth by mistake.

  33. KF

    1) Wouldn’t it be neat if we could pull it into orbit and attach a space elevator to it?!
    2) Don’t forget that “space is big, I mean really big.” But not only that, small changes propogate over time and distance. The Russian plan makes me nervous because these are the same community of scientists that programed in both feet and meters when designing the Mars Lander. Where would they REALLY put that asteroid?
    3) Consider too when you are talking to asteroid armegeddon fanatics that globally we have so many “blind spots” when it comes to hyperbolic and intrasystem asteroids (reflectivity, RCS, time of viz, etc have to all be just right) that we are probalby more likely to get slammed by something we didn’t see coming than this asteroid that we are tracking so diligently
    4) Given the lack of funding, and purpose of the US Space Programs and the decreasing pool of students pursuing math and science here in the United States, we in the US need to sit in our back yards with our popcorn and watch the rest of the world seek out new worlds and solutions to these problems. We are taking ourselves out of the space race in 2010 and ill preparing the next generation to resume that race in any competitive manner.

  34. MattF

    Alice: Do you have some math on Apophis and what it would take to “push” it?

    Assuming a mass of 2.7e10 kg (from NASA’s NEO website), if you could channel all the energy into moving the asteroid, you would need to exert 1.35e10 joules of energy (equivalent to about 3.23 tons of TNT) to change its velocity 1 meter per second (about 2.237 mph).

    So how much you want to move it by (worst-case scenario: one Earth radius) depends on how much time you have. If you want to move it 6,000,000 meters, and you have 1,000,000 seconds (rather unrealistic, actually, since that’s only a bit more than a week and a half), you only have to change its velocity by 6 m/s.

  35. T_U_T

    This is Russian space science we’re talking about here.

    Hey. In just a few months the Russians will be the only nation on earth capable of maintaining permanent human presence in space. So I would advise you not to male fun of someone technologically superior to you ( even if superior here means slightly less decadent ) ;)

  36. @26. T_U_T wrote: Unless you blast it less than a few days before impact, the debris will spread out on trajectories that all pass through the point of explosion, almost none of them crossing earth orbit at all.

    I don’t think that is true. While an explosion might scatter the pieces of the asteroid, most of them are still going to be in almost the same orbit, and that orbit still crosses Earth’s orbit. Given enough time, gravity might cause the the asteroid to reconstitute. Also, if the asteroid is a rubble pile instead of a solid body, the shock wave of the explosion will be dampened and cause almost no damage at all to the asteroid. It would be like hitting a Nerf football with a hammer. It might put a ding in it, but that’s about it.

  37. T_U_T

    While an explosion might scatter the pieces of the asteroid, most of them are still going to be in almost the same orbit, and that orbit still crosses Earth’s orbit.

    All depends on the mass of the asteroid, its gravitational binding energy and the strenght of the explosion. If you exceed the gravitational binding energy by orders of magnitude, and make pieces of the asteroid fly away at say 50 m/s the shell of debris will expand 4000 km in a day, so after say 30 days only a tiny fraction will hit the earth.

  38. @ Elmar_M #1:

    The only problem with actually nuking it is the ever-expanding cloud of particles would be mixed with radioactive residue. I say we just hit it with a giant rock.

    Then again, just as the diverging technology could also go the other way and endanger the Earth (the backstory of an old PC asteroids clone called “Close Approach”); finding a way to accelerate masses to sufficient velocities could also endanger our planet. Of course, this will also matter for interstellar travel. Reasonable speeds for interstellar travel mean enough kinetic energy to make a gigantic bang when you crash into that random comet in the Oort Cloud. We’ll have to deal with this problem somehow.

  39. T_U_T

    The only problem with actually nuking it is the ever-expanding cloud of particles would be mixed with radioactive residue. I say we just hit it with a giant rock.

    Most of it ending up as high velocity gas/dust flying straight out of the solar system, the rest of the dust would be swept away by solar radiation, only a insignificant fraction ending up on earth, producing a barely measurable increase in background radiation, and massive fits of radiophobia in certain ape species.

  40. Calli Arcale

    I’m all for the mission too, with one reservation — if we focus our efforts on one asteroid, we may wind up unable to deflect the one that we later find really does have our name on it. There’s also the risk of making the situation worse (a conundrum more often faced by satellite operators and particularly manned spaceflight mission controllers — read Wayne Hale’s recent post about the nail-biting suspense of waiting for the moment of conjunction when the decision has been made to not move the Shuttle — though admittedly the odds of a collision are far better when we’re talking satellites than asteroids).

    Still, the problem does need to be solved, and I’m glad to see a government finally investing engineering effort in it.

  41. I saw this story first yesterday on Russia’s RIA Novosti. It doesn’t look like the AP would be the sole place that misquoted Perminov, if indeed he was (which I doubt):

    ” “A scientist recently told me an interesting thing about the path [of an asteroid] constantly nearing Earth… He has calculated that it will surely collide with Earth in the 2030s,” Anatoly Perminov said during an interview with the Voice of Russia radio.”

    That’s more vague on the date, but still. Later in the article:

    “Perminov said Russia was not planning to destroy the asteroid.”

    From what was said, I’m assuming they’d send a real life “tractor beam” to the asteroid. This entails sending a massive spacecraft to orbit with the asteroid for several years. Because it would exert a small gravitational pull over time, it would deflect the asteroid’s path enough, again given enough time. Still seems silly with what we know today about the impact risk. And as Paul Chodas of NASA’s NEO office said in Space.com, this could cause an increase risked further down the line.

    I have the feeling this is like other news coming out of Russia recently. Like the nuclear powered manned spacecraft for a ridiculously small amount and built in a short time, its to show that the country is still a space heavyweight. I applaud it’s desire, but I don’t think its too credible, considering how many problems it has with programs not backed by NASA. (See Phobos-Grunt, Soyuz rocket launching from French Guiana, GLONASS satellite positioning system, etc).

  42. Doug M.

    No, we CANNOT capture Apophis. It’s a nice idea, but we can’t do it.

    BOTE calculation follows.

    Mass of Apophis is around 2 x 10^10 kilograms.

    Delta vee required to move Apophis into Earth orbit is unclear, but is probably on the order of a couple of km/s. (Note that it’s currently in solar orbit with a fairly high eccentricity.) Let’s be conservative and say 1 km/s.

    A Saturn V first stage produced 34 meganewtons of thrust for 150 seconds. Strapped to Apophis, that would be a thrust of about 1.6 millimeters/second^2, or about one six-thousandth of a gravity. After 150 seconds, total delta vee would be about 0.24 m/s.

    Four Saturn V first stages would give you about a meter/second. So you’d need… four thousand Saturn V first stages to get that kilometer/second of delta vee.

    Now keep in mind that just putting /one/ Saturn V first stage equivalent on Apophis would itself require something like 20 Saturn V first stage equivalents to launch it, since the SV had a payload percentage ratio in the single digits. So, now we’re talking about launching 80,000 Saturn Vs.

    You could in theory get better results by attaching a low-thrust system to the asteroid — a solar-powered ion drive, say. But even an ion drive would need thousands of tons of propellant.

    Before you start talking about wackier stuff (solar sails! railguns! hit it with a big ol’ laser, and get rocket propulsion by ablation!), keep in mind that we’re talking about technology that could plausibly be deployed in ~20 years. Look at the space propulsion technology of the 1980s. Is today’s better? Yes. Is it orders of magnitude better? Alas, no. And it probably won’t be in the 2020s, either — it’ll still be chemical rockets to get stuff into orbit, even if we have some more options (solar sails, tethers, what have you) once we’re up there.

    So, unless some Magic Woo technology is unexpectedly discovered in the next 10 years or so, no.

    Doug M.

  43. “The amount of iron in that big baby is economically interesting.”
    $10 billion if I did my math right, and that’s if it is all just low grade iron and doesn’t have impurities like platinum, gold and Cobalt which most asteroids have. Adding in the more valuable metals could easily double its worth.
    For guiding it a solar reflector set up in 2029 could put it on whatever trajectory we want it to have in 2036. That would give us 26 years to set up a system of solar powered lasers to make the final adjustments to slow it down with a gravitational assist from the Moon.
    While they are waiting for Apophis to come by those lasers could lift objects from LEO to GEO and beyond.
    Even in 2036 an injection of $20 billion would help the various space agencies.

  44. Look at the space propulsion technology of the 1980s. Is today’s better? Yes. Is it orders of magnitude better? Alas, no. And it probably won’t be in the 2020s, either

    Wait. You mean we can’t just fly a space shuttle up to it? Even with the engines constantly burning? :D

  45. Doug M.

    “Adding in the more valuable metals could easily double its worth.”

    …the value of the metals is not the way to figure this. That’s a meaningless metric.

    What would make Aphophis valuable is that it’s a bunch of metals /sitting in high Earth orbit/. That means, available for space-based industry without having to lift them from Earth.

    If you care to google around, you can come up with numbers. But here’s a hint: we’re talking a lot more than $10 billion.

    That’s the good news. The bad news is, any plausible plan for getting Apophis into orbit is going to cost /even more than that/.

    Doug M.

  46. Doug M.

    “For guiding it a solar reflector set up in 2029 could put it on whatever trajectory we want it to have in 2036.”

    I’m sorry, but no, it couldn’t.

    No offense, but I wish people would at least try to run the numbers before saying stuff like this.

    Doug M.

  47. T_U_T

    No offense, but I wish people would at least try to run the numbers before saying stuff like this.

    The difference between earth velocity and apophis velocity around sun – less than 1 km/s.
    The maximum difference in velocity for gravity assist maneuvers – 2x the orbital velocity of the body. orbital velocity of the moon is more than 1km/s, so capture purely by gravity assist is possible, just aiming the rock is very tricky because after capture it ends up on a higly unstable earth/moon orbit, so you will still need a lot of delta V to push it on a lower and stable orbit around earth. But far less than brute force capture only.

  48. Johno

    @28 Chip:
    What are you going to anchor your stretchable space net to?

    @34 KF:
    It was NASA that crashed the polar lander into Mars because of an imperial/metric mistake.

  49. Levi in NY

    I think we should move Apophis to a trajectory where it impacts the Moon, because that explosion would be super-awesome to watch. We could also learn some sciency stuff about crater formation too. But mostly for the cool explosion. Three questions:

    1) Is this feasible?

    2) Would this end up putting us in danger of debris from the impact?

    3) How totally kick-ass would that explosion be, seriously?

  50. sHx

    Ah, the Global Warming scare is so last decade already.

    I predict the hip scare of the new decade will be asteroid crash scare. That means more funding for asteroid research, greater popularity in mainstream media of catastrophic asteroid related predictions, and even more funding and jobs for rocket scientists. I wouldn’t be too skeptical of that.

    Happy New Decade!

  51. Doug M.

    @49, Apophis doesn’t come anywhere near the Moon on either approach.

    In theory, you could give it a nudge on the earlier approach that would put it into the lunar capture keyhole on the later one and yes, this could perhaps require significantly less energy. In practice this may not be possible. The keyhole is a small moving target, much much trickier than just shoving it into a C3 high earth orbit. It’s like minimum energy Hohmann orbits: they’re great, but they only work at certain times. It’s not clear that this would be feasible given the particular orbital parameters. IOW, it may be that there’s no nudge we could give on the earlier approach that would put Apophis into that keyhole.

    Note that matters are complicated considerably by the fact that while Apophis’ orbit is nearly flat to the ecliptic, the Moon’s is not.

    Here again, a constant thrust drive would be better — you can play tricks that you can’t with a single big shove, and get a much wider range of orbital outcomes.

    But, again, we can’t put an ion drive on Apophis either.

    “The difference between earth velocity and apophis velocity around sun – less than 1 km/s.”

    I’d like to see a cite for that. Brief googling gives a figure of 1.28 km/s, though that’s a guy doing the calculation from scratch.

    Doug M.

  52. Doug M.

    1) Is this feasible?

    – Probably not. On one hand, a lunar collision could be much cheaper in terms of energy than an Earth capture. But on the other hand, the Moon doesn’t orbit in the plane of the ecliptic. So there are only a few “windows” for hitting it. Getting Apophis into that window might end up being more expensive than just getting it into orbit.

    Even if the windows are lined up, it will still probably be impossible. The damn thing’s just too big, and it’s just too expensive to land stuff on it.

    2) Would this end up putting us in danger of debris from the impact?

    – Probably not; see below.

    3) How totally kick-ass would that explosion be, seriously?

    – Pretty kick-ass. Estimates of the energy release from Apophis hitting the Earth are in the range of 400 megatons. By way of comparison the biggest nuke ever set off (the Soviet Tsar Bomba) was about 50 megatons, and that thing was scary as hell. A ground impact would create a crater about 3 km / 2 miles in diameter, totally vaporizing everything in that radius. You’d then have total devastation (buildings knocked down, trees smashed to splinters, everything burning) for about a 20 km/12 mile radius around that, and major devastation out to about 50 km / 30 miles.

    An impact on the Moon would be a bit smaller because of the Moon’s lesser gravity. But it would still be over 100 megatons. It would be clearly visible from Earth with the naked eye, and the crater would be glowing red-hot for hours to days afterwards.

    On the other hand, not much debris would reach lunar escape velocity, and even less of that would end up on Earth. I very much doubt we’d see any pieces of Apophis bounce off the Moon and make it through our atmosphere.

    Doug M.

  53. Once we develop the technology to push the asteroid away from the keyhole, what is there to stop the DOD from pushing the next one into the keyhole using the same technology?

  54. Tom K.

    Too bad we couldn’t line up all the cable satellites or anything else up there we don’t need to get rammed into as it passed. Maybe slowing it down enough to fall into the Sun some day. A win-win for every one.

  55. coolstar

    @MattF You’ve fallen what’s becoming known in the asteroid community as the Bad Astronomer fallacy: of COURSE it’s better to get hit by a lot of smaller pieces than one big one. Make the pieces small ENOUGH and they all airburst at altitudes too high to do any damage (5-20 miles or so). It’s clearly a LOT better to have 10,000 40 kiloton explosions at altitude (likely spread over a very wide area) than one 400 megaton one at your doorstep. About half the energy gets radiated back into space and the heat capacity of the atmosphere is pretty enormous (the energy added to the atmosphere is completely negligible in this particular case). Plus, you don’t have to deal with the debris thrown up by a ground strike, which can out mass the impactor by about a factor of a thousand.
    While the above is obvious, it’s just as obvious that fracturing an asteroid is usually not the most cost effective thing to do if you find one on a collision course with you.
    @Doug M Actually, impact velocity on the moon is essentially the same as for the earth (it could possibly be MORE, depending on the details of the collision), so the energy involved is the same for all practical purposes (it’s NOT the same problem as dropping a rock from infinity, it’s the problem of getting hit by a thrown rock and whether or not you’re running towards it or away).
    This is another case where the BA is wrong about NASA, but, shockingly, on the WRONG side of the argument: NASA is doing everything it needs to do about Apophis. The one additional thing that could be done, attach a transponder so we’ll know it’s orbit to within meters, has been studied and is a relatively inexpensive mission that we have plenty of time to get ready. On the gripping hand, if we send lots of missions to NEOs (which we should be doing as they’re the only route to a sustained human presence out of LEO), there goes Phil’s return to that stepping-stone-to-nowhere, the moon.
    But I don’t understand why anyone is SURPRISED by this latest Russian bit of idiocy: remember, these are the same people who regularly scheduled radio chats between at least one Mir cosmonaut and his ASTROLOGER (pseudo-science is a MUCH larger problem in Russia than in the U.S., though I know that’s hard to imagine). I’m sure cooler heads will prevail though; there are still competent space scientists in Russia and they can hardly afford to launch worthwhile science missions. And, as has been mentioned by others here, you hardly want the human race’s first attempt to move an asteroid to be one where a small move in the WRONG direction turns a non-problem into a disaster.

  56. joe

    Something occurred as I read the part about not knowing the exact orbit of this thing.

    Could we tag it? Land/orbit a radio beacon or something that would help us track it? Especially when it is getting relatively into the neighborhood.

    Be kind if this is a dumb question, I’m new to this stuff.

  57. forget about the fact that smaller pieces loose a lot of mass during reentry. The smaller the piece the bigger the surface area in comparison. Further blowing it up will also cause the pieces to be of a very rugged irregular shape, which should also increase the surface area.
    All that should make them loose plenty of mass during reentry. Enough to make them come down with very little harm done (a small enough piece will be slowed down to terminal velocity during reentry, so all its energy from speed will be gone and only the mass will have an effect also).
    So I still think that nuking the s**t out of such a thing would be the best and easiest solution

    Except that the mass, and associated energy doesn’t just go away.

    If you have a 1 million ton object, and you blast it into 100 million 10 kg pieces, you will still deliver the same energy to the atmosphere.

    Sure, you might not make on single, massive Jebus-swallowing hole in the ground, but you’ll still deliver a massive amount of energy – primarily in the form of heat – to the atmosphere. More, in fact, than you would if the thing punched through the atmosphere and thudded into the ground. Odds are, all those tiny little chunks will deliver all their energy to the atmosphere because they’ll be small enough to be destroyed in the air.

    I cannot see any possible way that could be a good thing. It would seem to me that the likely result would be some horrible firestorm over a huge area, with massive, global environmental damage.

    A relatively small chunk blew up thousands of square kilometres in Tsunguska without making a crater. Now imagine 1000 of those happening at the same time. That’s what you get when you bust an asteroid into chunks.

  58. Chip

    @50. Johno asks: “@28 Chip: What are you going to anchor your stretchable space net to?”

    Keeping in mind that its an unproven concept, the net or screen, which is large and stretchable, might be constructed in sections with an outer framework or unfurled and then accelerated while anchored to a central towing rocket which would crash into the asteroid. Possible small rockets at each section could also apply forward acceleration just before impact increasing overall pressure on impact. The net itself has nothing to do with stopping the asteroid. It is only the stretching action at contact for several seconds that applies pressure against the large surface area.

    Or – the net is static but positioned in the path of the asteroid. Just at impact as the static net envelops the asteroid, additional pulse rockets fire to apply outward pressure to the stretching action of the screen. The resistance of the stretching action applies mass in a resisting grid over much of the surface robbing the asteroid of momentum and altering its course.

  59. CB

    As a parallel effort with visiting the object, we should invest in technology to speed the earth up in its orbit to dodge the impact, then slow it down again later. That way the same system could be used to avert collisions with multiple objects, and it will create a lot of work for coders that develop software that expects the Earth’s orbit to stay the way it is (including NEO-tracking software).

  60. Really, coolstar (#57)? I have a fallacy named after me in the asteroid community? I assume you have excellent evidence of that.

    Also, if you have evidence of me saying it’s better to let a single 400 megaton-equivalent asteroid hit, I’d be interested in seeing that as well, because I’m pretty sure I’ve never said such a thing. I have said that about giant impactors, like over a mile across.

  61. DA BRONXXX

    LETS GET IT STRAIGHT…THE GREATEST COUNTRY(USA)IN DA WORLD IS COLLAPSING AS WE KNOW IT… YET WE THINK THAT RUSSIA IS A COUNTRY FULL OF BUMBLING IDIOTS. SO ITS ONLY TRUE IF WE(usa) SAY IT IS. WOOOOOOW.

  62. StevoR

    So, now we’re talking about launching 80,000 Saturn Vs.

    Now *that* I’d like to see! ;-)

    I do think it is worth looking at the options here & exploring these objects – I think our close encounter with Apophis gives us a good opportunity for a human mission to land on and study a NEA like that & I’m not too worried by what was clearly an off-the-cuff and not too well considered comment by the Russian space agency man.

    BTW. What sort of view of it will the ISS & its crew get when Apophis pops by I wonder?

    @ 19. Joe Meils Says:

    Possible good things to come out of this:
    1. international cooperation.
    2. shared tech and engineering
    3. shared cost of an asteroid mission
    4. practice for one that actually might hit us in the future.
    5. possible revival of the Orion nuclear pulse drive engine.*
    6. advancing ion drive*
    7. testing the idea that a “flying in formation” craft could influence the orbit.*
    * depending on the approach we want to take.

    Agreed. Good post. :-)

  63. Doug M.

    “Actually, impact velocity on the moon is essentially the same as for the earth (it could possibly be MORE, depending on the details of the collision), so the energy involved is the same for all practical purposes (it’s NOT the same problem as dropping a rock from infinity, it’s the problem of getting hit by a thrown rock and whether or not you’re running towards it or away).”

    I don’t believe that’s correct. Orbital velocity for the Moon is pretty low (just over 1 km/sec) and the difference between lunar and Earth escape velocities is quite large (11.2 vs 2.4 km/sec).

    No, it’s not “dropping a rock from infinity”, but the rock is going to fall into the gravity well before impact. And Apophis’ velocity relative to Earth is going to be low — about 7 km/sec on the first pass.

    So, I’m pretty sure a lunar impact would be quite a bit less energetic than an Earth-surface one, regardless of configuration.

    Doug M.

  64. Markus

    I think the media have blown this Russian quote out of proportion (as could probably be expected, but I don’t want to digress). And I think so have you. I don’t know in what context he said this, but for all intents and purposes, it seemed to have been a zone of “we’ll look into it and if necessary might approach doing something about it”. Which is reasonable and rational, nothing else. The headline frenzy turned that into all variations of a full-out “Russia planning to blow up asteroid” as if there was a rocket sitting on the pad ready to go, which is reeeally a stretch and not warranted. Neither warranted is your “yikes”-position of “…bases a decision on…” hearsay and fuzzy data. There is no “decision” – there isn’t even a mission or a plan or anything. All he said is they’ll sit down and talk about the probabilities and implications. Which is a good thing, and exactly what a space agency is supposed to do. I’m not quite sure why you’re trying to turn that into a motivation for some sort of subliminally condecending “god, those stupid russians again don’t know what they’re doing” kind of rant.

  65. Doug M.

    Joe @58, landing something on it — a transponder, a small probe, what have you — is totally doable with current, off-the-shelf technology. We wouldn’t even have to wait until the 2020s; we could launch something in the next few years to rendezvous with it.

    SteveOR @63, a human mission is IMO right at the bleeding edge of plausible. The tricky bit here is not the delta-Vee — it’s quite a bit less than the Apollo landings — but the time. Apophis will pass at a relative velocity of about 7 km/sec, or about 25,000 km/hour. Put another way, Apophis will cover the distance from Earth to Moon in about 16 hours. So if the astronauts plan to spend more than a day or two exploring it, they’re going to have to cross millions of km. The mission starts to involve daysor weeks spent in space travelling to and from the asteroid, with corresponding increases in mission cost and danger. On the other hand, if they’re going to spend less than a couple of days, what’s the point?

    Doug M.

  66. MattF

    coolstar: Make the pieces small ENOUGH and they all airburst at altitudes too high to do any damage (5-20 miles or so). It’s clearly a LOT better to have 10,000 40 kiloton explosions at altitude (likely spread over a very wide area) than one 400 megaton one at your doorstep.

    I don’t know if you were being pedantic here or not, but I’m not pretending that the single 400-megaton explosion happens “on your doorstep”. Put it in the middle of Antarctica.

    coolstar: About half the energy gets radiated back into space and the heat capacity of the atmosphere is pretty enormous (the energy added to the atmosphere is completely negligible in this particular case).

    Do you have citations for these points? I’d be interested in looking over them.

    coolstar: Plus, you don’t have to deal with the debris thrown up by a ground strike, which can out mass the impactor by about a factor of a thousand.

    And this, too, if you don’t mind; while your main point seems logical enough, I’d just like to see what debris versus mass of impactor looks like and how they get figures like that.

  67. T_U_T

    @ 53, I just took average earth orbital velocity and that of apophis. It was just a quick and dirty estimate.
    If the correct value is 1.28 kmt then the lunar capture is still possible, just tougher. Of course you have to to deliver the delta V necessary to divert the asteroid to the moon, but it is far less than 1.28 km/s. You are also correct that delivering it continuously over time is better than all in one shot, because you can maneuver and continuously aim, which is most likely necessary because the position and velocity precision needed to actually make the asteroid enter earth/moon orbit is surely pretty high.
    However, declaring it impossible is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, because nothing is possible if you give up before trying.

  68. Elmar_M

    If a big rock hitting the Earth would mess up our climate in a serious way, lots of little rocks dissipating their energy as heat while they fall could still mess up our climate in a serious way. The energy doesn’t magically go away just because the rocks are smaller and vaporizing and/or falling more slowly.

    It all depends on the size of the asteroid. Too large an asteroid can not be blown up anyway, but then the nuclear bombs should be used to divert its course. But even there people are affraid of the possibilities of shrappnell cousing more damage, which I dont see at all.
    In fact nuclear explosions are the only (comparably)short term solution. If you have many decades, or centuries to work with, then you can employ other means.
    Anyway, IMHO a smaller sized asteroid would have very, very little effect on the world climate. I think you are vastly overestimating the impact of such an object on climate.
    Most of the climate effects would be caused by the debries blown into the atmosphere during an actual impact. If smaller junks just burn up in the atmosphere or fall to the ground at terminal velocity the impact should be minimal.

    Even if that means sending a whole lot of little hot rocks our way, with a little extra radioactivity thrown in as a bonus, possibly spread around in the atmosphere in meteoric dust?

    Ohhh the evil nuclear bomb radiation. I think you are way overestimating the radiactivity caused by modern nuclear bombs. It is by far not as bad as you might think. Plus, if you use the bomb(s) when the asteroid is still months, or at least weeks away, most of the hard stuff would be gone by then. If it is spread out over the atmosphere, the measureable effect would probably barely exceed background radiation from cosmic rays (or the dose you get from living close to a coal- yes coal- powerplant).
    During the cold war, more than 500 nukes had been exploded in the atmosphere, more than 100 of those on US soil. Only very few people had ill effects from that (usually living close to the test sites and/or directly involved with the test).
    I think the effects of the radiation will be more than negligible. Absolutely the least of my concern.

  69. MattF

    Elmar_M: Ohhh the evil nuclear bomb radiation. I think you are way overestimating the radiactivity caused by modern nuclear bombs.

    Not at all. What concerns me more is not the bomb itself, but the airborne radioactive particles left after some “hot” material incinerates in the atmosphere. Consider the difference between the material in a SNAP 27 RTG (like the one designed to power Apollo’s ALSEPs) and the same material dispersed in the upper atmosphere (3.8 kg). One isn’t all that bad, really; the other gives fatal lung cancer to everyone on the planet (100 nanograms gives guaranteed fatal lung cancer to an individual; 3.8 kg is enough to kill all humans five times over). This is precisely why pains are taken to package RTGs carefully, even to survive re-entry.

    While I don’t expect that a radioactive rock would be that radioactive, the potential for loss of life is very real.

    Elmar_M: During the cold war, more than 500 nukes had been exploded in the atmosphere, more than 100 of those on US soil.

    I know about HAND tests, but were any detonated 5-20 miles up (much closer to prevailing winds)? What kinds of particulate matter remained, how did it spread, and what effects did it have?

  70. Gary Ansorge

    Things we really need to know:

    1) mass of impacter
    2) velocity of impacter
    3) structure of impacter(loose, rocky rubble vs solid chunk of iron)
    4) location of impact(75 % chance of water vs land)

    Gerard O’Neille proposed using solar powered mass drivers to alter an asteroids orbit. All the reaction mass required is a part of the asteroid and the energy to accelerate that is provided gratis from Old Sol. Unfortunately, LANDING on a tumbling rock is really tricky(rotational rate of a few hours). Using his proposal would reduce the cost to a much more reasonable level(we could deliver the required tech to the asteroid via chemically fueled rockets, no nukes required)

    Loose rubble is easy to mine for reaction mass but hard to anchor the mass driver to the surface. A solid body would be hard to mine for reaction mass but easy to attach the mass driver.
    (So many trade offs.)

    Total Q(joules) delivered to the earths atmosphere by an Apophis sized asteroid, fragmented or solid, compared to the Q we receive from the sun every day seems pretty insignificant to me. Impact of a large, solid body is more dangerous from a weather POV because it throws up a lot of dust, which would then shield the surface from solar radiation for a year or two(reducing plant growth). Atmospheric heating from the same mass spread over a large area eliminates the dust thrown up. I THINK that’s a better option than an actual surface impact.

    GAry 7

  71. Gary Ansorge

    73. MattF

    “100 nanograms gives guaranteed fatal lung cancer to an individual; 3.8 kg is enough to kill all humans five times over”.

    Only if it was applied directly to each and every human on earth. Spread out over the entire globe it would come to a much lower exposure rate for humans, since we only occupy about a trillionth of the surface of the planet, so divide your 3.8 kgs by a trillion or so.

    Gary 7

  72. Doug M.

    “have to to deliver the delta V necessary to divert the asteroid to the moon, but it is far less than 1.28 km/s. ”

    Well… no. It’s far less than 1.28 km/s _if you can hit that window_. Otherwise it’s more, or just impossible.

    Doug M.

  73. Shoeshine Boy

    @56. Lab Lemming:

    Why wouldn’t the DoD push the thing into the keyhole?

    1) No reason to do so?
    A) It’s not like they could point the thing wherever they wanted.
    B) Even if they could aim it, there would have to be a compelling military reason to do so at the time they could.
    2) Even if they had a reason, everyone would know who did it?
    Some people might be very unhappy and some of them might have nuclear weapons.

    Contrary to what comes out of Hollywood, the DoD is not run by people hell-bent on blowing things up for the fun of it. Well, maybe Curtis LeMay fell into that category ;)

  74. Elmar_M

    MattF, there have been several accidents with SNAPs in the past. Quite a few resulted in the SNAP burning up in the atmosphere releasing all of its fuel. The result was… not newsworthy.
    I would not be too concerned about this. The good thing is that the further something is spread over the atmosphere the less of it you get.
    Also: nuclear bombs and SNAPs both use a different radioactive isotope of plutonium. Bombs may also use uranium both have much longer half lifes and are therefore not quite as toxic.
    Anyway, the effect of nuclear bomb explosions in the atmosphere has been greatly exaggerated in the past. Given that there were more than 500 above ground nuclear tests during the cold war, we should all be dead if some people were to be believed.

    Here is a link to a map showing the location of the tests.
    http://gizmodo.com/5421617/our-century-of-fallout-every-nuclear-detonation-mapped

    Also, the Tsar bomba test occured rather high in the atmosphere (4.5 km) the Mushroom cloud reached up 65 kilometers. It caused blast damage almost 1000 (!)km away from the actual ground zero. Yet, the effects or the released radioactivity on the general population of earth were comparably minimal.

    I cant imagine a nuclear explosion far out in space to be a problem.

  75. T_U_T

    !!! WARNING !!! Dangerous levels of radiophobia detected !!! WARNING !!!

    (100 nanograms gives guaranteed fatal lung cancer to an individual;

    Holy crap !

    From where you got that figure ? (fyi, 1000 nanogram of polonium is LD50, and plutonium is two orders of magnitude less radioactive )

    I also wonder how it is that someone could survive Nagasaki because all of the plutonium in the bomb that went into the atmosphere.
    ( heck, given all the plutonium that we blew up, how it is that the earth is not a lunar landscape devoid of any multicellular life ? )

  76. T_U_T

    @76, of course. That is pretty much the only question to be settled.

  77. amphiox

    Putting aside the OMG! IT’S NUCLEAR! NOOOOOO!!!! objections, the only real drawback of the nuke option is that it’s messier than other potential alternatives – we have less control over, and less ability to predict beforehand, precisely what’s going to happen after the big boom. So it’s possible that after breaking up or deflecting the asteroid, some of the larger chunks, or the whole asteriod itself, might get deflected into a new orbit that brings it back to impact at some later date anyways. But to that object, I have to say, so what? Say Apophis is at risk for impact in 2036, and we nuke it and the result is that it will come back and hit us in 2056. 20 years delay is better than nothing, no? That’s 20 more years to work out how to deflect it again.

    Against these drawbacks, the nuclear option has this very major advantage: We already have the nukes, and we already know how to make more if we need to.

    So if the time-frame to impact is short, the nuke option really is by far the best (if the time-frame is really short, it might be the only feasible option we have). If the time-frame is longer, then we have the luxury of fiddling with more precise deflection techniques. The biggest advantage of these precise techniques to me is that not only do they allow us to deflect the impactor, they let us park it with some precision in an orbit that is both safe and useful – ie it won’t ever threaten earth again, and possibly we can make economic use of it in the future.

    (If it is necessary to make substantially more nukes, or more powerful nukes, or develop and test new delivery systems, rather than just use a portion of the pre-existing arsenal, there is potentially an added risk that the newly developed nuclear technology might get misused in the future, in a sort of “genie-out-of-the-bottle” way. But if we have the time to do that kind of nuclear research, we probably have enough time to foregoe the nuclear option, and even if not, the negative consequences/risks are mostly likely manageable in comparison to the consequences of letting the impactor collide.)

    re: #4
    But don’t forget, after the impact (or after the deflection), the orbit will be cleared again.

  78. MattF

    Elmar_M: MattF, there have been several accidents with SNAPs in the past. Quite a few resulted in the SNAP burning up in the atmosphere releasing all of its fuel. The result was… not newsworthy.

    I’m getting that. :) But just for the sake of my sanity, can you post citations for these SNAP accidents? I’d like to see what did happen.

    Elmar_M: I cant imagine a nuclear explosion far out in space to be a problem.

    Nor can I, really, but that was never my concern.

    T_U_T: From where you got that figure ?

    Follow the link. Dr. John Gofman, University of California, Berkeley. But after reading the article more carefully and considering the points people have made, it doesn’t seem like it would be anywhere near the issue I’d thought. (It’s not 100 ng in the atmosphere generally; it’s 100 ng inhaled.)

    But for all I know, Dr. Gofman’s figures were off, too. -=shrug=-

  79. amphiox

    One potential worrisome scenario for an imprecise deflection:

    Big destroy-the-whole-world type asteroid on collision course is detected

    One nation, or a small group of allied nations, panics and unilaterally attempts a deflection mission.

    Mission is successful, but not completely. A small fragment, too small for global devastation, but big enough for local destruction, gets through.

    Small fragment hits a third nation not involved in the deflection attempt.

    Victim nation is nuclear armed and already on poor terms with one or all of the deflection nations.

    Cue international incident.

  80. Pancakes

    Anyone know why we couldn’t fire a string of nukes at a given incoming object? Fire the nukes off in volleys, you know boom boom boom…boom boom boom. We got a lot, lets put them to good use. And into the realms of science fiction, too bad we couldnt shape a nukes charge. a nuclear powered RPG…neat.

  81. T_U_T

    Follow the link. Dr. John Gofman, University of California, Berkeley. But after reading the article more carefully and considering the points people have made, it doesn’t seem like it would be anywhere near the issue I’d thought. (It’s not 100 ng in the atmosphere generally; it’s 100 ng inhaled.)

    The guy basically pulled the number out of his ***. Most probably it is based on hyperbolical hyperpesimistic upscale of the outdated linear no threshold model.

  82. I think it’s a good idea to use Apophis as a developmental project so we’ll know what we’re doing if there’s a greater danger. I remember the guy saying they wanted to do it without using nuclear weapons, which is obviously good. The Russian space program is famous for shoestring ingenuity so if they see this through as the project leader, it can only benefit overall cost effectiveness of future space travel.

  83. Gary Ansorge

    Or we could just kick sand in its face.

    Er, what?

    Launch Point Tech has a proposed launch ring capable of launching 10 kg payloads to 11 km/sec. Their cost/profit calculations indicate they could make a profit at $ 189/kg if they launched 3000 payloads/year. Build a thousand of those, launch 30,000,000 kg/year directly into the oncoming object and I bet there wouldn’t be much left of it when it got here.

    I’m SUCH an optimist,,,

    GAry 7

  84. WetChet

    Phil, I would love to hear some further explanation on NASA’s ability to measure the orbit of Apophis and it’s likelihood of hitting Earth. Speaking as someone who has spent many hours playing with Celestia software, and a longtime amateur astronomer, 18,300 miles seems phenomenally small in space terms — less than one Earth circumference. A small error in measurement could go a long way over the next 20 years.

    Also, if Apophis truly will pass that close to Earth, don’t you think this would reach fever pitch at sometime in the future when the general public understands the potential impact (sorry, pun), no doubt whipped up by a future politician?

    Thanks — Chet

  85. Elmar_M

    @MattF:
    Mr Miagi voice:
    Wikipedia is your friend.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioisotope_thermoelectric_generator

    There have been six known accidents involving RTG-powered spacecraft. The first one was a launch failure on 21 April 1964 in which the U.S. Transit-5BN-3 navigation satellite failed to achieve orbit and burnt up on re-entry north of Madagascar.[12][13] The 17,000 Ci (630 TBq) plutonium metal fuel in its SNAP-9a RTG was injected into the atmosphere over the Southern Hemisphere where it burnt up, and traces of plutonium 238 were detected in the area a few months later. The second was the Nimbus B-1 weather satellite whose launch vehicle was deliberately destroyed shortly after launch on 21 May 1968 because of erratic trajectory. Launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, its SNAP-19 RTG containing relatively inert plutonium dioxide was recovered intact from the seabed in the Santa Barbara Channel five months later and no environmental contamination was detected. [14]

    Two more were failures of Soviet Cosmos missions containing RTG-powered lunar rovers in 1969, both of which released radioactivity as they burnt up. There were also five failures involving Soviet or Russian spacecraft which were carrying nuclear reactors rather than RTGs between 1973 and 1993 (see RORSAT).[15]

    Thanks to decade long indoctrination by the green party and green peace, most people have an emmediate panic reaction to the words radioactivity and nuclear. The mass hysteria these words can cause is almost funny. Luckily for us, things are not quite as bad as we are made to believe. Yes nuclear bombs are bad, yes radioactivity can kill you, but you always have to put everything into relation. E.g. we are told that “the nuclear bombs in the worlds arsenals are enough to destroy the world many times over”. By far not! Not even once, not even close! Even if all nuclear bombs were exploded ideally so that they have the best destruction and are spread perfectly so that as much land mass as possible is covered, they would still not destroy the world, again, not even close.
    Anyway, that just added to the mix. I am just always a little perplexed by the aversion that people have to anything nuclear.

    That said, the more precise solutions are perfect if there is enough time. Then we can do other nice things with asteroids as well (e.g. use them for terraforming purposes, as has been proposed by some scientists).

  86. Ian

    Admit it, you fancy a few test runs. Let’s play Space Pinball and see what happens!

  87. StevoR

    @ 68. Doug M. Says:

    StevoR @63, a human mission is IMO right at the bleeding edge of plausible. The tricky bit here is not the delta-Vee — it’s quite a bit less than the Apollo landings — but the time. Apophis will pass at a relative velocity of about 7 km/sec, or about 25,000 km/hour. Put another way, Apophis will cover the distance from Earth to Moon in about 16 hours. So if the astronauts plan to spend more than a day or two exploring it, they’re going to have to cross millions of km. The mission starts to involve days or weeks spent in space travelling to and from the asteroid, with corresponding increases in mission cost and danger. On the other hand, if they’re going to spend less than a couple of days, what’s the point?

    Well Apollo 11 spent only a day or so on the Moon & only a few hours of that outside doing the Moon walk(s?) I understand … ;-)

    ***
    ADDED NOTE : Wikipedia : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_11 gives the Lunar surface stay of Apollo 11 as under a day – 21 hours 31 min. 20 secs & their Lunar EVA as just 2hrs 36 min. 40 secs.
    ***

    If it is “on the bleeding edge of the possible” then I think that’s actually all the more reason to go ahead! To try to “push the envelope” of our technological capabilities is probably the best way to improve them. Let’s do these most difficult things as JFK put it *because* they are hard and test us and make us progress further shall we? :-)

    Failing that Doug M’s suggestion :

    Joe @58, landing something on it — a transponder, a small probe, what have you — is totally doable with current, off-the-shelf technology. We wouldn’t even have to wait until the 2020s; we could launch something in the next few years to rendezvous with it.

    is a good idea too. :-)
    Although I’d prefer a human mission, I’d certainly settle for a robot one.

    BTW. My apologies Doug M. for inadvertantly not crediting your 80,000 Saturn V’s line in your comment 44 back when I quoted it in my original comment 65.

    Oh & … HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE! :-D

  88. Travis

    To heck with asteroids it’s those comets I worry about. They have higher velocities and we’ll have a lot less notice. That’s why my Earth Impact screenplay project is about a comet and not an asteroid. Of course in my story we don’t succeed in diverting it and the bulk of the script is about how different people all over Earth deal with the impending and certain end of humanity.

  89. Roman

    Astronomy is a signal by God! God will decide world will end if you are NOT follow God! I’m not kidding! If you still laugh me, then I will know what will happen on Earth. Please be good people in the World, love God!

  90. T_U_T

    I am just always a little perplexed by the aversion that people have to anything nuclear.

    There is a diagnosis for that. Radiophobia.

  91. amphiox

    I am just always a little perplexed by the aversion that people have to anything nuclear.

    I’m not. Only if your null hypothesis is that human beings are, on average, rational, is this surprising. Given what we already know about human nature, this response is fully consistent with what we should expect.

    the impending and certain end of humanity

    An interesting question would be what magnitude impact would it take to guarantee the “certain” end of humanity. Obviously, a Mars-sized impactor, like the moon-creating event, which is going to liquefy and blow off much of the crust, would do the trick, and a Ceres-sized (or Texas sized ala a certain movie which will remain nameless) impactor (assuming asteroid velocities rather than comet) that would vaporize all the surface water would do it.

    But something in the range of Chicxulub, I think, would not. We know of even larger craters that are not associated with any extinction events whatsoever, so clearly the ecological effects are dependent at least to some degree on the zone of impact and the status of the ecosystem at the time of impact (though given the current human-induced state of the global ecosystem, this isn’t reassuring). But even given a full-blown repeat of the entire Chicxulub sequence, I’m not betting against some small band of survivors making it through and proceeding to repopulate the planet and rebuild civilization. Humans are hardy, adaptable bastards.

  92. Elmar_M

    I think that it is our duty to colonize other planets in order to guarantee the survival of our species and maybe of other earthly species as well.
    I just hope that I will live long enough to see progress towards this great endeavour (like the development of some enabling technology). We will see…

  93. Brian Too

    I’m always puzzled by the idea that asteroid mining is going to be a bonanza somehow.

    Suppose you capture this thing to Earth orbit. You’re probably going to spend a lot of money doing that, more than simply kicking it away from Earth. Now what have you got? You might have any composition conceivable, from commercially worthless rock to solid iron. The best possible outcome is that it is iron or some iron alloy. However it’s also entirely plausible that what you get is iron ore rather than reasonably pure iron.

    Now you have to have a mining/smelting/refining/casting operation, in orbit, to handle all that raw material. Does this sound cheap? What’s your power source to run your factory? You need to generate a LOT of power to do something meaningful with all that asterioid material. Is the refinery manned or automated?

    Of course all this is possible. My issue is that I think it’s expensive, involves a lot of new technology, and you’re going to run into a lot of problems because you’re the first.

  94. SJB

    @34 KF said: “The Russian plan makes me nervous because these are the same community of scientists that programed in both feet and meters when designing the Mars Lander.”

    I thought US is the last country that still actively using non-metric system, even in space :) or :(
    It’s higher chance that something might pop up from a blind spot and by that time it might be too late to initiate a new space program

  95. Messier Tidy Upper

    ^ Pretty much so as I understand things.

    Of course I could be mistaken ..

  96. Maybe someone here can help. I’d been engaged in a delightful dialogue with Michael Shermer, who I truly do respect, regarding UFOs, where we of course disagree. However, as soon as I introduced the information in my article APOPHIS: ARE THE RUSSIANS READING MEIER’S WARNINGS?
    it seems that Mike got quite stumped and has…disappeared.

    Of course I know that he is busy and has other things to do but since skeptics always (and quite rightly) want extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims, I thought he’d like to have some of the best, most irrefutable evidence available…documentation from the Library of Congress.

    As a matter of fact, I had hopped over to Phil Plait’s blog, where he asks for “predictive evidence” and provided the same to him. He also seems strangely tongue-tied. Heck, I dropped emails to a number of the skeptics and their organizations and they all seem to have taken an extended vow of silence.

    Now I know that some people have a tendency to say things like, “Well that’s because there’s nothing credible to comment about, etc.” But in addition to the LoC copyrights, for the truly scientifically minded, I’d like to quote Mike Shermer’s own words here, ” It just means that we don’t know everything. That is the very nature of science.”

    So, anyone who’d like to stand in for Plait and Shermer would probably be fine. I do think that even the most skeptical person should be interested in an extraordinary source of accurate scientific information, who seems to scoop our scientists time and time again…and has the copyrighted evidence to prove it.

  97. You may also find our latest press release through PRWeb, titled:

    UFO Contactee Warns Apophis Asteroid Could Devastate Europe

  98. JohnR

    Can we land a mini-magnetospheric plasma propulsion system, inflate the plasma magnet with material from the asteroid and steer it somewhere usefull?

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