MOSCOW — Russia's space agency chief said Wednesday a spacecraft may be dispatched to knock a large asteroid off course and reduce the chances of earth impact, even though U.S. scientists say such a scenario is unlikely.
Anatoly Perminov told Golos Rossii radio the space agency would hold a meeting soon to assess a mission to Apophis. He said his agency might eventually invite NASA, the European Space Agency, the Chinese space agency and others to join the project.
When the 885-foot asteroid was first discovered in 2004, astronomers estimated its chances of smashing into Earth in its first flyby, in 2029, at 1-in-37. Further studies have ruled out the possibility of an impact in 2029, when the asteroid is expected to come no closer than 18,300 miles from Earth's surface, but they indicated a small possibility of a hit on subsequent encounters.
NASA had put the chances that Apophis could hit Earth in 2036 as 1-in-45,000. In October, after researchers recalculated the asteroid's path, the agency changed its estimate to 1-in-250,000.
NASA said another close encounter in 2068 will involve a 1-in-330,000 chance of impact.
"It wasn't anything to worry about before. Now it's even less so," said Steve Chesley, an astronomer with the Near Earth Object Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Without mentioning NASA's conclusions, 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.
"People's lives are at stake. 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 said.
Scientists have long theorized about asteroid deflection strategies. Some have proposed sending a probe to circle around a dangerous asteroid to gradually change its trajectory. Others suggested sending a spacecraft to collide with the asteroid and alter its momentum, or hitting it with nuclear weapons.
Perminov wouldn't disclose any details of the project, saying they still need to be worked out. But he said the mission wouldn't require any nuclear explosions.
Hollywood action films "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon," have featured space missions scrambling to avoid catastrophic collisions. In both movies, space crews use nuclear bombs in an attempt to prevent collisions.
"Calculations show that it's possible to create a special purpose spacecraft within the time we have, which would help avoid the collision," Perminov said. "The threat of collision can be averted."
Boris Shustov, the director of the Institute of Astronomy under the Russian Academy of Sciences, hailed Perminov's statement as a signal that officials had come to recognize the danger posed by asteroids.
"Apophis is just a symbolic example, there are many other dangerous objects we know little about," he said, according to RIA Novosti news agency.