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UK plans surveillance for Earth-menacing asteroid

Keeping an eye on Apophis

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UK boffins have come up with a plan to track the potentially planet-busting asteroid Apophis, according to a report on the BBC News website. The 300m-wide chunk of space debris is expected to make a close fly-by of Earth in 2029. Initial reports suggested it might actually collide with us, but more refined calculations allayed those fears.

However, there is a small chance that the 2029 encounter could set the rock on a collision course for 2036, so the Planetary Society offered a $50,000 cash reward for a mission plan which will allow us to find out more about the asteroid.

In response, researchers at rocket-makers EADS-Astrium have come up with a plan to study the rock's orbit, so that its future path can be better predicted.

Its plan calls for a small, remote sensing craft to be sent to the asteroid, arriving at its destination as early as 2014. It would then spend three years studying the rock, sending back valuable data on its spin, composition and size and temperature.

The firm says that if it wins the prize, it will donate the money to charity. The payoff would come if a space agency decided to go ahead with the mission. The cost of developing and executing the mission could run to hundreds of millions of dollars, the BBC says.

MP Lembit Opik, who before his involvement with a Cheeky Girl was best known for his fascination with the threat of an asteroid strike on Earth, said that the plan showed: "If we have the political will, we certainly have the technical know-how to do something about threatening objects".

An object the size of Apophis could do serious damage to Earth, depending on where it hit. Experts estimate that if it smacked into the land, it could leave a crater roughly six kilometres wide. A sea impact would throw up a wave with a deepwater height of between three and 22 metres, potentially very damaging to any nearby coastal regions. ®

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