Extra-terrestrial visitor could have a huge impact on us all

It might seem like the stuff of a 1950s' disaster film, but asteroid tagging looks set to be the next big business. Martin Hickes reports.

Just when it seemed nothing could be worse than the credit crunch and financial armageddon, scientists and politicians are increasingly turning their attention to a real-life "phantom menace".

Seventy years ago in the autumn of 1938, Orson Welles's radio suggestion that the Martians were coming caused those listening Americans more open to suggestion to take extreme action.

Today, the threat might not be from the Martians, but in the "coconut shy" of the cosmos, a spine-tingling cosmic fireworks' show might lie a short 20 years away. And it's not science fiction.

Sky-watchers have been chattering for at least four years both online and openly about a rapidly approaching object, entitled Apophis 2029.

Apophis – an asteroid 1,000ft across – perhaps worryingly named after the Greek god of darkness and chaos – will shave past the earth on April 13, 2029 – a Friday, by coincidence.

In 2004, scientists worryingly gave it a 1-40 chance of colliding with the Earth. If it did, it would easily destroy an area the size of Yorkshire and cause ensuing tsunamis.

While experts are keen to underline it's not quite time to start lighting cigars with 50 notes, boffins and politicians at home and abroad are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of "what lies above".

Apophis's ominous potential alerted the learned US-based Planetary Society enough to launch, only this year, a $50,000 contest to invite ways to "tag" or shadow the approaching body. The British-based firm and satellite manufacturer EADS Astrium won a share of the prize

"We've done the difficult mission planning and now we hope that politicians will take notice," says Dr Paolo D'Arrigo, leader of Astrium's team in Stevenage. "However, without funding, this exciting and important mission won't happen"

If the body is still deemed to be a threat, a special craft could be launched to intercept it and so shift it from its potentially cataclysmic trajectory.

Bruce Betts, a director of the widely respected California-based Planetary Society, which launched the competition, hopes the initiative has been enough to catch the ear of serious-minded politicians worldwide.

"We had some excellent entries which provided full mission designs that could refine our knowledge of the position of Apophis, and determine what the chances are of it hitting what's known as a 'gravitational keyhole'," he says. "It's vital we carry out these investigations, because we need to know whether we need to deflect this asteroid to keep it from impacting Earth.

"We live in a cosmic shooting gallery, so it truly isn't a matter of if, but rather when, will the next major impact occur.

"The good news is that if we figure out where all the major asteroids are we can actually prevent an otherwise natural disaster."

For those of a nervous disposition, it seems more than likely Apophis will miss, certainly in the initial 2029 fly-by. But it has an ominous precedent. In 1908, a mysterious body – possibly a comet – slammed into pre-Soviet Siberia scattering the dense Russian taiga woods like matchstalks, destroying some 80m trees in a huge fireball.

The shock wave and dust cloud from the 15 megaton "Tunguska explosion" reverberated around the world – allowing Britons to read their morning papers in a curious luminous twilight, thousands of miles away.

Had the earth been just half a spin away, it could have wiped out major cities in Europe.

For those currently pre-occupied with earthly matters, the biggest threat might still come from out of the blue.


Apophis is likely to have a closest approach of about 20,000 miles in 2029

EADS Astrium is a major player in the space industry specialising in satellites, space probes, launchers, orbital infrastructure, satellite services and interplanetary robotics.

The company has 3,000 space engineers, scientists and technicians in the UK and a total workforce of 12,000.

Astrium built the latest Inmarsat fleet of telecommunications satellites, the ESA spacecraft Mars Express, and is now building Europe's mission to Mercury "Bepi Colombo" as well as the Mars rover vehicle for the ExoMars programme.

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