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    Russian space probe may save Earth from asteroid

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    Russian experts have said a space mission should be sent in 2012 to the Apophis asteroid to establish whether it will collide with Earth, adding that the Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft could be used for that purpose.

    MOSCOW, June 27 (RIA Novosti) - Russian experts have said a space mission should be sent in 2012 to the Apophis asteroid to establish whether it will collide with Earth, adding that the Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft could be used for that purpose.

    A report at a Moscow scientific conference said 99942 Apophis, or Asteroid 2004 MN4, with a diameter of 350m, is the biggest space threat to Earth.

    In 2029, this near-Earth object will be at a distance of only 36,000 km (22,400 miles) - closer than satellites in geostationary orbit. Earth's gravity could change the orbit of Apophis in such a way that it would collide with Earth on its next approach in 2036.

    "This could lead to an area equal to France turning into a desert," said Alexander Simonov, an author of the report.

    The report authors also said that Apophis's exact orbit, with a precision of up to several tens of meters, should be calculated to determine whether the asteroid will collide with the Earth. This is only possible if a radio beacon is placed on the asteroid.

    Apophis got its name from Egyptian mythology, where Apophis, or Apep the Destroyer, is the god of evil and destruction characterized as a serpent dwelling in eternal darkness.

    The authors said the biggest ground-based radio telescopes cannot provide the necessary precision. "We propose the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft designed by the Lavochkin Russian scientific and production association as a platform for this mission," the report said.

    The authors said the launch should be made May 13, 2012, and the flight is expected to take 330 days, adding that the Phobos-Grunt payload would only have to be slightly altered to perform the task.

    Phobos-Grunt is a planned Russian sample return mission to the Martian moon Phobos. Its development started in 2001. It is expected to be launched in 2009.

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