Apophis is a 46 million tonne asteroid that will pass within a hair’s breath of Earth in 2029. However, Apophis’s trajectory is likely to take it through a region of space near Earth known as a keyhole that will ensure the asteroid returns in 2036.
Nobody knows how close Apophis will come on that pass. But if there’s a chance of a collision, we’ll have only 7 years to work out how to avoid catastrophe.
Researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing say their preference is to use a solar sail to place a small spacecraft into a retrograde orbit and on collision course with Apophis. The retrograde orbit will give it an impact velocity of 90km/s which, if they do this well enough in advance, should lead to a collision large enough to do the trick.
In 2002, the European Space Agency began a program called Don Quijote to find out how best to perform such a deflection.
Don Quijote involves sending two spacecraft to a near Earth asteroid; one to smash into it and the other to watch while in orbit above the impact crater. The goal is to change the asteroid’s semimajor axis by more than 100 metres and to measure the change with an accuracy greater than 1 per cent.