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”?


International Law is an Asteroid Suicide Pact

On Volokh, the possibility of ‘AsteroidGate’ is discussed. Although the asteroid 2004 MN4 was originally suggested to have a 1 in 300 chance of hitting earth in 2029 (why worry? Everyone knows the earth is going to be destroyed long before then in 2012), it appears now that the true risk is closer to 1 in 250,000. I’m pretty comfortable with those odds myself — and even Dick Cheney’s one percent doctrine is clearly uncalled for, at least in the case of 2004 MN4.

However, a Wired article linked to on Volokh, Saving Earth From an Asteroid Will Take Diplomats, Not Heroes, brought up a few key points on why international law will have a big role to play in saving the world, should a big chunk of space debris ever head our way.

In the movie Armageddon, nuclear warheads are placed on an incoming asteroid to make it explode and miss earth. In real life, this never would have happened — nukes in space are clearly a violation of international law, and there is no “eminent extinction” exception provided for. In addition to the prohibitions contained in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, there is Article VI of the Space Treaty, which provides that:

States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.

As AsteroidGate illustrates, it would be naive to assume that something as insignificant as the human race reenacting the dinosaurs’ extinction would be enough to cause mankind to join together to defeat a common threat. If, tomorrow, an asteroid were discovered that was a couple years away from impacting earth, I imagine the conversation would go something like this:

United States: Hey, UN, there’s this asteroid headed towards earth. Just to be on the safe side, we’re sending some nukes up into space to blast it to smithereens.
Rest of the World: Like hell you are. Do you really think we’re dumb enough to fall for the old “we’re all going to die if the U.S. doesn’t get to use nukes” routine again?
U.S.: No guys, I’m for serious. Here, check our facts. There is .2% chance that the earth will utterly perish in world ending explosion, and a 3% chance that it will only give us a glancing blow, only causing 75% of the human population to die off.
Rest of the World: You just made these numbers up. Let me guess, these figures come from the same research agency that found WMDs in Iraq? And besides, even if you didn’t make them up, our 3% odds with the asteroid are way better than the odds the earth would have once countries started launching nukes into orbit.
China: I think the U.S.’s idea sounds great! We’ve got some nukes we’ll send into space to help too, everyone cool with that?
U.S.: Oh, hmm, well this is a little bit awkward. Listen, China, thanks so much for the offer, but we were kind of thinking we’d be the only ones sending up nukes to kill the asteroid. You know what? Why don’t you just sit back and relax. Out of our deep feelings of generosity towards the UN, the United States will volunteer to cover all of the expenses of the Nukes-In-Space program.

In short, if an asteroid was discovered a few years away from hurtling into the earth, it’s a close call about which happen first, the international community deciding who and how would get to send up nuclear weapons, or the asteroid finally hitting us.

Nuclear weapons are not the only theoretical way to avert an asteroid impact, but there is no option that will not require extensive international coordination to implement. The B612 Foundation, for instance, proposes a long-term slow diversion of the asteroid:

Our preferred solution to deflecting an incoming near Earth asteroid (NEA), for reasons that are clarified below, is to rendezvous and “dock” with it at either its North or South Pole, realign the asteroid’s spin vector to a preferred direction and then push it (gently and for a long time) until we’ve changed its speed enough to miss the Earth.

But, as the Wired article above points out, this causes its own set of problems:

That’s a major geopolitical problem, Schweickart said, because it requires temporarily increasing the risk to one population — in the example above, Venezuela, or Russia — to eventually eliminate the risk for the entire Earth.

“It’s going to be slowly dragged across the Earth. That is a binary decision,” Schweickart said. “You don’t have the option of dragging it down through the Antarctic.”

Who gets to decide which way the asteroid is dragged away from an impact with Earth? The United Nations? The United States? Russia? Some independent body of astronomers and space agencies?

“What deflection technologies are OK and who says they are OK?” Schweickart asked. “Who accepts liability? How do you decide that it’s OK to endanger the people of Venezuela or the people of Kazakhstan?”

True, Siberia is in many ways an ideal place to risk an asteroid impact — they got hit by one last century, and it took a couple decades before anyone even noticed — but I do not expect that Russia would be too amiable to the suggestion. I suppose you could attempt some sort of economic solution, i.e., the countries that accept a small increased risk of being asteroided will not have to contribute to the cost of the asteroid diversion program, or maybe even receive payments from the countries not put at risk. Of course, this might very well be held up as an example of the developed countries, once again, putting the developing nations at risk to save their own hides.