Russia may deploy defensive spacecraft against the Apophis asteroid, which is almost certainly not going to hit the Earth, according to remarks by the head of the country's space agency.
"I don't remember exactly, but it seems to me it could hit the Earth by 2032," said Anatoly Perminov, quoted by AP.
In this Perminov is technically correct. Apophis is set to pass close by the Earth in 2029 - so close that it will be nearer than television satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Collision at that stage has been ruled out, but according the latest NASA analysis there is a remote chance - 1 in 250,000 - that the 27-million-tonne rock might pass through a so-called "keyhole" during the 2029 pass which would alter its course so as to hit us on the next pass, in 2036.
"People's lives are at stake," Perminov reportedly insists. "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."
One popular strategy for deflecting rogue asteroids is the use of nuclear weapons. Other schemes involve a shove delivered by a spacecraft, probably having only a minuscule effect on a big object like Apophis but enough that it would miss tiny Earth in the vastness of space. Yet other plans would see solar reflctors used to boil matter off from icy/carbonaceous asteroids.
Perminov refused to be drawn on the details of his Apophis scheme, though he did specify that there would be no nuclear explosions. This is probably just as well, as weapons of mass destruction are forbidden in space by international treaty.
Those sceptical of the Russian regime will see the announcements as sinister - after all, an asteroid-nudging spacecraft could just as well direct Apophis to hit Earth - perhaps chosen parts of Earth - as deflect it away. In the event of a strike, the rock would hit with energy equivalent to a 500 megaton nuke barrage.
However, conspiracy theorists can probably relax on this one. Perminov is keen to recruit other space agencies to the project, including NASA and the ESA. Observers have noted that though the effort is highly unlikely to be required in the case of Apophis, it could save us all in the event of another threatening rock coming on the scene. ®