Do the Russians know something we don’t?

In the waning days of 2009, the head of Russia’s federal space agency, Dr. Anatoly Perminov, made huge headlines by telling a Russian radio station that their space agency was contemplating sending a mission to Apophis, an 885-foot (270-meter) asteroid first discovered in 2004. Why? To prevent it from hitting Earth, of course.

If you think you’ve heard this story before, you’re probably one of those people who sat through the painful Bruce Willis movie, Armageddon, or its equally painful predecessor, Deep Impact, in 1998. My initial reaction upon hearing about Dr. Perminov was to assume it must have taken an awful long time for the DVDs of those cinematic clunkers to reach Moscow, but apparently the man wasn’t poking fun at Hollywood. He was dead serious.

Although he wouldn’t divulge the source of his information, Perminov was quoted as saying, “I don’t remember exactly, but it seems to me it [Apophis] could hit the Earth by 2032. 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.”

By “we” he meant more than just the Russians, since he intimated that at some point NASA, the European Space Agency, and even China’s space agency might be invited to join the effort. Just what most Americans wanted to hear, I’m sure. After pouring billions of dollars of stimulus money into rescuing our banks, investment firms, car companies, and God knows what else, what’s a few hundred million more to save the world?

What makes this story particularly bizarre is the fact that, assuming he had not started celebrating New Year’s Eve a day or two early, Anatoly Perminov is not your run-of-the-mill doomsday prophet. Quite the contrary. The man holds a PhD in engineering from Russia’s Military Academy, he’s a respected professor who chairs the Moscow Aviation Institute’s Operations of Launch Vehicles and Spacecraft department, and he’s written more than 70 technical papers on space exploration. He’s been the Director of Russia’s space agency since March 2004, and before that he managed the testing and launching of satellites and missiles for Russia’s Department of Defense. With credentials like that, one has to wonder – what does Dr. Perminov know that we don’t know?

Two years ago I had an opportunity to interview Dr. David Morrison, senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute and one of the agency’s foremost experts on not only the risk of asteroid impacts, but potential ways to mitigate that risk. According to Dr. Morrison, there is no danger of Apophis hitting the Earth when it flies by us on April 13, 2029. He went on to add, however, that there is “… a very, very small chance that, subsequent to that flyby, it will find itself in another orbit, which brings it right back to hit the Earth seven years later. That is a chance that is not zero, and it is worth considering seriously. But it’s not an imminent threat.”

So, at one point in the interview I asked Dr. Morrison the obvious question: were we to discover an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, do we have the technology to prevent a collision? His answer was very interesting. “Given several decades of warning, I have no doubt that we have the space technology and could develop the specific techniques to deflect an asteroid. But given only a few years of warning, we do not have the technology.”

Isn’t that precisely the point Dr. Perminov is trying to make? Except he seems to think we should do it right now, which brings me back to my original question. Do the Russians know something we don’t?

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