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Design for asteroid-tracking mission unveiled

European space company Astrium has designed a mission to track an asteroid due to fly past the Earth in April 2029. The asteroid, known as Apophis, was only three years ago considered a possible threat to planet Earth. Now scientists predict that it will whiz past at a distan...

European space company Astrium has designed a mission to track an asteroid due to fly past the Earth in April 2029. The asteroid, known as Apophis, was only three years ago considered a possible threat to planet Earth. Now scientists predict that it will whiz past at a distance of just under 36,000 kilometres. This is described as a 'comfortable' distance, but is still closer to the Earth than many communications satellites are positioned. The Astrium design would see a small, remote-sensing spacecraft making a rendezvous with Apophis in January 2014 and then tracking it for the next three years. The spacecraft would send data back to Earth on the rock's size, spin, composition and temperature. Astrium believes that this information would lay the foundations for orbit modelling, which would provide a more accurate prediction of the risk of any future collision. In the case of a genuine risk, any potential impactor could be deflected out of the Earth's path, either by nudging it into a different trajectory with a small mass, or flying a spacecraft next to the asteroid in order to pull it using gravity. Funding such a mission would cost millions of euros, and Astrium is therefore hoping for the support of either the European Space Agency (ESA) or NASA.

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