Leave it to Russia to jumpstart the long-debated idea of deflecting killer asteroids that might threaten Earth. A top Russian space official announced just prior to the New Year that he wants to put together a mission for heading off the space rock Apophis, which represents a poster child of sorts for the risk of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). But NASA astronomers caution that a failed deflection attempt could simply make matters worse.
Anatoly Perminov, head of Russia's Federal Space Agency, told Golos Rossi radio that he had heard from a scientist of a possible Apophis collision with Earth in 2036. NASA currently puts the Apophis collision risk during that swingby at just a three-in-a-million chance, or about 1-in-333,000.
"People's lives are at stake," Perminov said. "We should pay several hundred million dollars and build a system that would allow us to prevent a collision, rather than sit and wait for it to happen and kill hundreds of thousands of people."
Perminov did not provide details about how a spacecraft might nudge the 900-foot-long asteroid aside, but did say that Russia would not use nukes (and presumably also wouldn't enlist a oil rig crew for the job). Scientists and NASA astronauts alike have proposed various schemes, such as gravity tractors, for protecting Earth against an Armageddon or Deep Impact threat.NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office saw Russia's interest as a good sign, even as it emphasized that Apophis presents very little risk. But Paul Chodas, a member of that NASA office and an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told SPACE.com that an attempted deflection carries its own risks -- failure might push the space rock into a more dangerous path.
NASA itself once considered a mission to better track Apophis, which is larger than two football fields. The Tunguska meteoroid that flattened a Siberian forest was 10 times smaller.
At least Russia's comment may spark some international discussion about how to tackle dangerous space rocks. Putting some more cash into the sky-watch coffers might not hurt, either, given the current lack of funding for NASA to track potentially threatening space rocks.