Jan 11 2010

The Mysterious Russia-Apophis Connection — Another Perspective

On December 30 major media outlets reported on a new, proposed Russian mission to deflect asteroid Apophis from a possible Earth-impact trajectory in 2036. Discovered in 2004, Apophis is 3x larger than the 1908 Tunguska impactor or almost 3 football fields long. NASA has estimated that a collision with Earth could produce a 880 Megaton impact — almost 20x the largest H-bomb ever tested (in 1961 by Soviets) and more than 4x the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa.

What does asteroid Apophis tell us about our world?
(Artist: Don Davis)

Anatoly Perminov, head of the Russian space agency, said that Apophis’ flight trajectory was gradually approaching the Earth. “I don’t remember exactly, but it seems that by 2032 Apophis will ram into Earth,” (Pravda, 12/30/09).

Pravda also indicated that, “Russian specialists will choose the strategy to save planet Earth from Apophis and then invite world’s leading space agencies to join the project.”

This all seemed a little abrupt and surprising to me so I emailed Rusty Schweickart, Apollo astronaut and co-founder of the B612 Foundation, to find out if he’d been working with Perminov. He replied almost immediately that he had not been “involved.” The same day Rusty warned in the New York Times (12/30/09; Ellen Barry) that “It takes a very small change in the Apophis orbit to cause it to impact the Earth instead of missing it. There are a million asteroids out there. Find another one.”

Interestingly, JPL calculates that on April 13, 2036, Apophis’ closest approach to Earth will be 18,300 miles or about 8% of the Moon’s distance. And the odds of a collision are only about 1 in 250,000, justifying the Space.com (12/30/09) headline, “Russia May Attack Asteroid That’s Virtually No Threat.”

So what should we make of Perminov’s surprise December 30 announcement? Let’s speculate about two possible connections.

First, in August former Harvard professor Richard Pipes wrote that, “Russia is obsessed with being recognized as a ‘Great Power’…” This is partly due to their victory over Germany in World War II and “the success in sending the first human in space.” But Russia’s veering in the direction of a new cold war hasn’t helped them economically; “Russian aggression against Georgia has cost it dearly in terms of capital flight.” And Russia’s dependence on the global price of energy caused their exports to drop by 47% in first half of 2009.

So Russia — like the rest of the world — sees being a great space power as a key part of being an important global power. And they see the approaching new Space Age as an important time to demonstrate again their impressive capabilities in several areas, including manned space (e.g., transportation to ISS), new infrastructure (e.g., the new Vostochny Cosmodrome), and future planning (e.g., asteroid deflection missions).

But Apophis doesn’t become even a tiny threat until 2036, and even the Apollo Moon program took less than 10 years, so why make the announcement now?

This second question is more speculative than the first but the announcement’s timing may be related to two issues:
1) The Russians may have sensed that the world is rushing toward a new Space Age and now is the time to get organized and allocate resources for planetary defense; this is consistent with the timeline I’ve previously suggested for the formation of a global space agency.
And even more speculative is,
2) The Russians may feel a Copenhagen connection. As public concerns about global warming decline and because the science no longer supports a “climate crisis” (e.g. including Climategate), the Russians may feel it’s time to refocus attention on a real threat to global civilization that’s occurred in the past (e.g., 1908 Tunguska), and will occur again — asteroid impacts.

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