Thursday, February 28, 2008

Can a spacecraft save Earth from an asteroid?

by Eric Hand, Nature News

To hunt prey, one must first track it.
That’s the logic behind a competition on how best to hypothetically track Apophis, the 300-metre-wide asteroid that has a tiny chance of striking Earth in the year 2036. The winning spacecraft design was unveiled on Tuesday.
Advocates say that not only would a mission to the asteroid better assess its trajectory than ground-based telescopes, but it would also gather information about the asteroid’s composition, shape and spin — crucial if engineers wanted to knock it off a path bound for Earth. “We wanted to raise awareness of the near-Earth object threat and encourage deep thinking about a not-well-studied niche,” says Bruce Betts, director of projects for the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, which sponsored the competition.

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