More than 100 teams and individuals from 25 nations are developing plans that could save Earth from a killer asteroid. All have sent The Planetary Society notices of their intent to enter the Apophis Mission Design Competition, which invites participants to compete for $50,000 in prize money by designing a mission to rendezvous with and "tag" a potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroid.
The United States, United Kingdom, Italy, India, Spain, Russia and Germany are the nations with the highest number of notices of intent submissions. About half of those interested in entering the contest are individuals, with the other half being teams from universities and other schools, aerospace industry, and astronomy clubs. The deadline for mission design proposals is August 31, 2007.
"We are thrilled that out Apophis Mission Design competition has generated such an enthusiastic response from around the world and look forward to seeing creative thinking on how to tag an asteroid," said Bruce Betts, The Planetary Society's Director of Projects.
Tagging may be necessary to track an asteroid accurately enough to determine whether it will impact Earth, and thus help decide whether to mount a deflection mission to alter its orbit. Apophis is an approximately 400 meter near-Earth object (NEO), which will come closer to Earth in 2029 than the orbit of our geostationary satellites. If Apophis passes through a several hundred-meter wide "keyhole" in 2029, it will impact Earth in 2036. While current estimates rate the probability of impact as very low, Apophis is being used as an example to enable design of a broader type of mission to any potentially dangerous asteroid.
Very precise tracking may be needed to determine the probability of a collision. Such precise tracking could require "tagging" the asteroid, perhaps with a beacon, transponder, reflector -- or some other method. Exactly how an asteroid could best be tagged is not yet known, nor is it obvious.
The $50,000 in prize money was contributed and competition made possible by The Planetary Society's Chairman of the Board, Dan Geraci, together with donations from Planetary Society members around the world. Geraci stated, "The time scale may be unknown, but the danger of a near-Earth object impact is very real. We need to spur the space community and indeed all people into thinking about technical solutions."
The recent Planetary Defense conference, a gathering of experts in all aspects of NEOs, recommended that "Results from this [Planetary Society] competition should be studied as a first step for future considerations of tagging. This competition may be a model for encouraging creative ideas for other aspects of planetary defense."
NASA currently has no plans to study methods of asteroid deflection, or how to tag an asteroid for precise tracking. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have co-sponsored the Society competition and will study the best mission designs offered.
In addition to NASA and ESA, The Planetary Society is conducting this competition in cooperation with the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA). The Society will present the winning entries to the world's major space agencies, and the findings of the competition will be presented at relevant scientific and engineering conferences.
Since The Planetary Society's inception in 1980, the organization has donated well over a quarter million dollars to asteroid research, about half of which was awarded through Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object Grants to amateur observers, observers in developing countries, and professional astronomers around the world.