Thursday, December 31, 2009

Russia Vs Apophis

It sounds like an episode of Stargate:SG-1 featuring their long-running Gua'uld villain, but this actually refers to a possible mission bye the Russian Space Agency to deflect asteroid 99942 Apophis, which is scheduled to make two very close approaches to Earth in the next few decades. For the full story, check out THIS article from the New York Times.

The mission is by no means firm, international objections are already being raised, and even if it does go ahead the exact method to be used for the deflection hasn't been elaborated on. But I hope the mission does go ahead.

First of all, I do think it would be a good thing to deflect the asteroid away if possible. Even though scientists are pretty sure its trajectory will carry it through a couple of near misses, something unforeseen could teeter in toward a collision course. I don't consider that very likely, but its not impossible, so perhaps its best not to take a chance.

But more important, it will test a capability that will prove very valuable to long-term future space efforts. Not just in terms of safety, in deflecting possible future impactors, but in terms of how to exploit one of the most abundant and important resources in interplanetary space. Not any time in the near future, mind you, but toward the end of this century or perhaps early in the next one can envision asteroids being slowly herded about the inner solar system, to be used as mineral resources for burgeoning construction projects and as natural frameworks for well-armored space-borne habitats. But in order to do that, we will first have to master how to move them about safely and with minimal damage.

The first few experimental deflections would be an important first step toward such a future. And NASA has actually talked occasionally about carrying out an experimental deflection themselves within the next ten years, just to test techniques for it, but on a different rock than Apophis.

So, despite the controversy this is going to be sure to create, the Russian deflection plans would be a big forward step in space development. Let's hope this isn't just empty talk.


Zot said...

I hope Russia goes through with the mission as well. If the ability to deflect asteroids is proven, it might just motivate serious efforts into deflecting asteroids that are on possible collision trajectories.

Paul Lucas said...

I agree Zot. But all we can do now is hope that Russia follows up.