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Apophis Mission Design Challenge

Status Report From: Planetary Society
Posted: Friday, September 1, 2006

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Dear Member,

A mountain of rock and iron is hurtling towards us from space. Apophis -- a 300-meter diameter asteroid -- is still millions of kilometers distant. But in 2029, it will make a spectacularly close passage by our planet. When it does, its orbit around the Sun will be affected.

A shift of just a few hundred kilometers, and Apophis could return in 2036 to slam into Earth, creating widespread devastation.

Alarming news? Sure. But what's really disturbing about the possibility of Apophis slamming into our planet -- an impact that would unleash the energy of 65,500 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs -- is the fact that no one, anywhere, knows how to track this asteroid accurately enough right now to properly assess its danger to Earth 30 years from now.

Which is why we must confirm, one way or another, that there's really no chance of impact. Will Apophis pass through the "keyhole," the small area on its 2029 path that would cause it to hit Earth on its next orbit in 2036? We have to find out, because if an impact is likely to occur, we're going to need all the time possible to plan and implement space missions to deflect it away from Earth.

You'd think the world's space agencies would quickly seize the chance that Apophis offers to find a solution to one of the biggest threats our planet faces, but you'd be mistaken.

So it's up to us -- the Members of The Planetary Society -- to make it happen, to inspire humankind to discover more about those potentially dangerous objects swarming around our solar system.

That's why I'm writing you today. The Planetary Society, not content to wait for governments to come to the rescue, has come up with a plan to help advance our efforts to prepare for the inevitable -- whether it happens with Apophis in a few years, or another object a few decades from now.

You see, some of the world's leading space experts -- people like Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart -- recognize how urgent this matter is, and believe we need to act before it's too late. They know we have technology that could help save Earth from such an impact, and they're determined that we figure out how to use it.

The most accurate way to track and determine the orbit of a potentially dangerous asteroid is to send a space probe there and "tag" it. But that is something that, right now, no one knows exactly how to do.

With your approval and support, the Society will challenge the most innovative and brilliant minds on the planet today to design a space mission to visit Apophis and "tag" it for tracking.

They may choose to affix a lander there, or orbit the rock with some kind of beacon. Whatever they come up with, the best design will be selected as the winner of The Planetary Society's Apophis Mission Design Competition.

A mission like this would provide astronomers here on Earth with the highly precise telemetry they need to figure out exactly what will happen when Apophis passes Earth in 2029. More importantly, it would serve to "jumpstart" global planning for how to prevent an asteroid or comet impact.

In order to make this competition happen and bring out the very best ideas, we need to raise $100,000 right away. This will help cover the prize money for the competition winners and the costs of a massive publicity campaign -- including raising public awareness about the dangers of asteroids and meteors, processing contest entries, getting the winning project noticed, and other expenses associated with such a global endeavor. Which is why I hope you'll make a generous contribution today.

In an incredibly exciting development, your gift to make this mission design competition happen will -- thanks to the generosity of a concerned Member -- be worth even more to the Society. That's right, for every two dollars you give, our Apophis Competition benefactor will match it with another dollar. What a tremendous return on your investment.

Help track one of the greatest threats to Earth. Donate online at: https://planetary.org/join/donate/apoph06/

We're going to back this contest with a $50,000 cash reward, along with the alluring possibility that NASA or another space agency will actually transform the design into a real mission.

We can be the stimulus that turns long-range governmental planning into real, doable projects. And we can do it the way we always have: by leveraging our resources, knowledge, and reputation to make it happen.

After all, the next Near-Earth Object to threaten Earth might not be sighted until it's nearly on top of us. We may not have the luxury of time that we've got with Apophis.

That's why we've harnessed a tried-and-true mechanism in the field of space engineering: a competition drawing on the best and the brightest the world has to offer -- professional and amateur alike. We'll harness private-public cooperation to bring out the best in both.

At the conclusion of the Apophis Mission Competition, we'll debut the winning design at a conference attended by the space community's science and engineering professionals. And after that: it'll be on to government space centers to turn the top idea into an actual mission.

I'm pleased to tell you that we're already starting to attract important attention and support for this project. In fact, Mike Griffin -- the head of NASA -- has personally told us that he's interested and would like NASA to review our results, and ESA has also pledged their support for our Competition.

I guess I don't need to point out to you just how significant that is. We are also working with other space agencies -- including Japan and Russia -- to involve them in reviewing the results.

Moreover, other space organizations are also expressing interest. Most significantly, the Association of Space Explorers -- the renowned group of Earth's astronauts and cosmonauts -- has agreed to cooperate, as has the leading professional organization of aerospace engineers, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. We will expand our outreach even further.

Everything is in place, except for the most important thing: your approval. In the end, after all, the Society is nothing more than your organization. This thing will happen only if you choose for it to happen. So what do you say? Is it a "go"?

Donate online at: https://planetary.org/join/donate/apoph06/

Sincerely,

Louis D. Friedman
Executive Director

P.S. If you haven't received it already, you will probably be getting a letter about this project in the mail. If you have already sent in your donation, we thank you.

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