Diverting Apophis: Russia Threatens to Break the Asteroid Suicide Pact

A few days ago, I posted about how international law might affect the earth’s response to a threatened asteroid collision, specifically the threat posed by asteroid 2004 MN4, a.k.a. 99942 Apophis. It turns out I was a bit premature — Apophis is back in the headlines.

Even though the odds of Apophis hitting earth are on par with the the odds of me finding a job the odds of North Korea making it out of Group G alive, Russia is now courageously offering to fund a space mission to protect us from this deadly threat.

It remains to be seen how they plan to do so, however. Scientific American’s blog gets the story about right: Russian space chief makes vague threat to vaguely threatening asteroid.

Anatoly Perminov, the head of Russia’s space agency, said today that Russia will consider deflecting the near-Earth asteroid Apophis from its present path, according to news reports. After all, Apophis’s orbit periodically brings the 270-meter asteroid uncomfortably close to Earth, and it has long been on the watch list of nearby bodies that pose a threat (however slight) to Earth. The only problem is that Perminov seems not to have done his homework on the subject.

According to Perminov, “No nuclear explosions [will be carried out], everything [will be done] on the basis of the laws of physics.” And also the law of nations, apparently, as any sort of asteroid-diversion premised upon the use of explosives would likely be in violation of multiple treaties and GA resolutions. Because the expected non-collision is still decades in the future, however, Russia would not need to use nuclear warheads to divert the course of Apophis. Much subtler methods would work as well — I’ve seen some suggestions that even something as simple as painting one side of the asteroid white could change its orbit, thus pushing it farther away from Earth. (Or possibly right into it, who knows.)

Perminov is also quoted as saying, “A scientist recently told me an interesting thing about the path [of an asteroid] constantly nearing Earth… He has calculated that it will surely collide with Earth in the 2030s.”

This is blatantly incorrect, and I cannot imagine that the head of the Russian space agency would be unaware of that. Either Perminov was engaging in some unauthorized bluster, or else Russia has some bigger plans in mind. It is far too early to tell, based only upon the isolated musings of one official, but I do wonder if Russia is thinking of using the minuscule threat to humanity that Apophis poses as a PR cover for carrying out some otherwise objectionable space activities.

On one last note, although usually I use this blog to stretch a science fiction story to show how it can somehow be tangentially relevant to international law, this time I get to do the reverse. It looks like Stargate SG-1 is to blame for how the asteroid got its name:

Apophis is the Greek name given to the Egyptian demon Apep, who was the enemy of light and order, the personification of evil and chaos. Depicted as a giant snake, Apophis/Apep attacked the Sun god Ra as he made his way through the Egyptian underworld during the evening hours. Solar eclipses were thought to be Apep’s few daytime attempts to swallow Ra, who always succeeded in cutting his way out of the snake’s belly. As the enemy of Ma’at, the ancient Egyptian concept of order and law, Apep represented chaos.

However, mythology may not have been the only consideration in naming Apophis. Codiscoverers Dave Tholen and Roy Tucker are fans of the TV series Stargate SG-1. The show’s most persistent villain is Apophis, an alien also named for the Egyptian god. “We considered a number of names, but ‘Apophis’ kept floating to the top,” says Tucker. “Apophis was a very fitting name for 2004 MN4 not only because of its threatening nature, but also because of its evolution from an Aten asteroid to an Apollo asteroid during the 2029 encounter.”

Since this one got to come from Stargate, can we name the next asteroid that threatens human extinction “TARDIS”?

-Susan

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