Back in 2004, a near Earth Asteroid was discovered. This is hardly ever news, however this asteroid’s trajectory through the solar system was computed to have a 1-in-27 chance of hitting the Earth in 2029, and at its size could produce some pretty undesirable effects …. not destroying all life on Earth undesirable, but not too far off …. very cold summers, even colder winters … any tropical/sub-tropical species on the brink of extinction could easily teeter over. Even America, Europe and parts of Asia with advanced technology would be in for a rough go. The discoverers of this rock, fans of the TV series Stargate SG-1 called this potential civilization destroyer “Apophis”.
Between 2004 and 2006, the asteroid was the subject of a lot of focus as the astronomical community began getting better and more up-to-date data on the asteroid’s position and speed. Even as late as 2005, there was serious concern that the asteroid had a very good chance of passing between the Earth and the altitude of geosynchronous satellites.
Since then, the probability of impact has been severely downgraded (now it is about 1/250,000), and the chance of a second impact event in 2036 is also downgraded. But for a few years, there was a lot of concern that this could become an issue.
One of the other things that astronomers started looking at was the likely point of impact. It turns out that while exact points of impact are (of course) extraordinarily difficult, the most likely points of impact were in the Pacific Ocean (now would be a good time to sell real estate in the Los Angeles/San Francisco/Seattle area, unless you are way up in the mountains), or southern Russia.
This month, the Russians have decided that they are worried enough to start putting money into this issue. They are beginning to explore the construction of a system for knocking an asteroid off of its orbit to avoid future collisions with the Earth.
Some might think this is a ludicrous waste of money and time, however, I will be the first to say this is not …
1. There is virtually no one in the scientific community who does not believe that regular and routine impacts from extraterrestrial objects are a part of the Earth’s history. It is true that as time has gone forward, larger impacts are (gratefully) fewer and farther between, and it has been a long time since the last impact that could wipe out significant amounts of life on Earth hit. This just means: we may be due.
2. There are a wide variety of natural disasters that could cause significant damage to the Earth (volcanoes, hurricanes, gamma ray bursts) … but as far as we can tell, an asteroid impact is the only one that has the potential to wipe out all life on Earth, AND can be preventable with current technology.
Of course the public thinks it crazy to spend millions for astronomers to peer through telescopes and look for rocks hurtling through space. And undoubtedly there will be some that think Russia crazy for spending millions to blow up said rocks when there is only a 2-3% chances of impact.
While we found Apophis in plenty of time to assess it, and plan to do something about it (should it have been necessary), there is grave concern in the astronomical community that a vast majority of NEOs (Near Earth Objects, which include asteroids and comets that can cross paths with the Earth) are as yet unidentified. As a matter of fact, as one report I read noted, the most likely outcome of a planet killer hitting the Earth is that there would be little or no warning of the event. Something that should have been easily preventable, is not.
So, kudos to the Russians for stepping up and taking the first steps to save the world … should it ever come to that.