The interceptor 'cradle' could carry as many as six nuclear tipped missile-like interceptor vehicles that would each carry one 1.2MT B83 nuclear warhead to break-up or standoff the near-Earth object (NEO) that is known as 99942 Apophis asteroid. Apophis will pass by the Earth within the orbit of the Moon in April 2029. Apophis is the Greek name of the Ancient Egyptian god Apep, "the Destroyer", who dwells in the eternal darkness of the Duat (underworld) and tries to destroy the Sun during its nightly passage.
In a report earlier this year, made public only after a Freedom of Information Act request, NASA says that "the nuclear interceptor option can deflect NEOs of [100-500m diameter] two years before impact, and larger NEOs with at least five years warning".
The United Nations is beginning to think about asteroid deflection and mitigation. Orbit of nuclear asteroid weapons by the United States would violate Article IV the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. However, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space [COPUOS] is slated to begin discussion of an asteroid strike mitigation framework in the spring of 2009.
Dr. David Morrison [profile] of NASA Ames and Dr. Mike Gaffey of the University of North Dakota Department of Space Studies spent the past week discussing asteroid deflection and mitigation [video] with a number of University of North Dakota Space Studies graduate research students. The adult students had studied the problem for nine months (which this blogger was among one of the study teams).
The graduate-level capstone studies focused on the nuclear option [video] such as one recently adopted by NASA. Others looked an options ranging from a gravity tractor to commercial asteroid mining. There was also a discussion of the need for funds to expand NASA's NEO search.
An asteroid strike will happen again. "It is just a question of when?" [video]. NASA now appears to be planning an 'Armageddon' mission over the next twenty years. A number of interesting treks to the asteroids demand attention.