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Russian Space Program Aims for Armageddon With Asteroid Interception

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Fans of impact event disaster flicks take note: Just before the New Year, Russia’s space chief announced that his agency is planning to save the world from a collision with a massive asteroid. Finally! After a series of close calls and box office hits, it’s nice to know someone is addressing the problem. We all know what happens When Worlds Collide, but is there really “a message of doom for this our world” written in the stars? And, if so, can Russia save the day?

In a dramatic interview with Voice of Russia radio, Anatoly Perminov warned listeners that the asteroid Apophis, if left on its current course, could “kill hundreds of thousands of people.” He won’t go into too much detail (it’s probably top secret) but says he heard from a scientist that Apophis is getting closer. “I don’t remember exactly,” he explains, “but it seems to me it could hit the Earth by 2032.” Or, in the words of Michael Bay’s 1998 flick Armageddon, “It’s closer than you think.”

As a matter of fact, this real-life doomsday thriller sounds even better than Armageddon. With over twenty years to prepare — as opposed to the eighteen days given to Bruce Willis and his team of oil drillers — Perminov and his team of scientists should be able to save humanity and those living in cities like New York, Shanghai and Paris. (Exactly where Apophis will hit is unknown, but according to movies those are the cities most likely to suffer severe damage.) Also, to help create the perfect ending, Perminov says the Russians would invite NASA, the European Space Agency, the Chinese space agency and others to join the project once it is finalized. Nothing says humanity is saved quite like seeing countries join together to fight space rocks instead of each other. It increases the odds of success and provides a warm fuzzy feeling.

There’s only one problem: Apophis isn’t going to hit the Earth. Not now. Not in 2032. Probably not ever. NASA scientists say it will make a close but harmless pass by our planet in 2029 (within 20,000 miles) and then it will swing by again in 2036 where chances of a collision are currently considered to be four-in-a-million. Yet, according to Russia’s RIA Novosti news service Perminov says Apophis will, “surely collide with Earth in the 2030s.” Does he know something we don’t?

After seeing what the Tunguska meteoroid did to his homeland in 1908, it’s possible he’s just not taking any chances. At 900 feet, Apophis is ten times larger than Tunguska and would certainly create serious damage to any region it hit. “We are talking about people’s lives,” says Permanov. “Better to spend a few hundred million dollars to create a system for preventing a collision than to wait until it happens.”

Dr. Hendron makes a similar argument while seeking help from the United Nations in When Worlds Collide, but is ignored after other scientists scoff at his claims. Will governments take Perminov’s claims more seriously today? Of course, it might depend on what he offers as a solution. Hendron’s plan to build spaceships to take a select groups to another planet works out well for those that get a seat, but isn’t exactly something government leaders can get excited about.

Perminov doesn’t say much about how his agency plans to prevent Apophis from hitting the Earth, but we know he won’t use the other Hollywood method of trying to blow the rock into bits before impact using nukes. “Calculations show that it’s possible to create a special purpose spacecraft within the time we have, which would help avoid the collision without destroying it (the asteroid) and without detonating any nuclear charges,” he says. The space race might still be on, but the cold war is over. He also promises that everything will be done “on the basis of the laws of physics.” Thank goodness for that. For a minute we thought he was planning a photon-catching sail, or perhaps a Gravity Tractor.

While other scientists applaud his desire to develop and demonstrate the capability to deflect an impact, they’re concerned that testing a method out on Apophis, if it’s not really a threat, might cause more harm than good. For one, they could accidentally alter the trajectory and send the asteroid into Earth. But The Green Slime — featured in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 pilot — offers up another chilling reason to stay away: In it, the astronauts destroy a dangerous asteroid without a problem, but end up coming into contact with one-eyed, octopus like monsters that make an impact of their own. No thank you, sir!

That said, given that the asteroid is named after the Ancient Egyption god Apep, “The Uncreator,” (not to mention Stargate SG-1‘s baddie) taking Apophis out may still be the best way to go.

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