MOSCOW — Russia's space agency chief says a spacecraft may be dispatched to knock a large asteroid off course and reduce the chances of an Earth impact, even though U.S. scientists say such a scenario is unlikely.
Anatoly Perminov told Golos Rossii radio on Wednesday that the space agency would hold a meeting soon to assess a mission to Apophis. He said his agency might eventually invite NASA, the European Space Agency, the Chinese space agency and others to join the project.
When the 885-foot asteroid was first discovered in 2004, astronomers estimated its chances of smashing into Earth in its first flyby, in 2029, at 1 in 37.
Further studies have ruled out the possibility of an impact in 2029, when the asteroid is expected to come no closer than 18,300 miles from Earth's surface, but they indicated a small possibility of a hit on subsequent encounters.
NASA had put the chances that Apophis could hit Earth in 2036 at 1 in 45,000. In October, after researchers recalculated the asteroid's path, the agency changed its estimate to 1 in 250,000.
NASA said another close encounter in 2068 will involve a 1-in-330,000 chance of impact.
Don Yeomans, who heads NASA's Near-Earth Object Program, said better calculations of Apophis' path in several years "will almost certainly remove any possibility of an Earth collision" in 2036.
"While Apophis is almost certainly not a problem, I am encouraged that the Russian science community is willing to study the various deflection options that would be available in the event of a future Earth threatening encounter by an asteroid," Yeomans said in an e-mail Wednesday.
Without mentioning NASA's conclusions, Perminov said he heard from a scientist that Apophis is getting closer and may hit the planet. "I don't remember exactly, but it seems to me it could hit the Earth by 2032," Perminov said.
"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," Perminov said.
Perminov wouldn't disclose any details of the project, saying they still need to be worked out. But he said the mission wouldn't require any nuclear explosions.