Asteroids represent a real danger to Earth. But is targeting them with missiles, maybe nuclear, a good idea? Image: NASA/JPL/CalTech

Russia’s New Ballistic Missiles to be Tested on Asteroids

16 Feb , 2016

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In a shocking announcement, Russian scientists say they want to test improved ballistic missiles on the asteroid Apophis, which is expected to come dangerously close to Earth in 2036. If this doesn’t send chills down your spine, you haven’t read enough science fiction.

In a February 11th article in the Russian state-owned news agency TASS, Sabit Saitgarayev, the lead researcher at the Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau, says Russian scientists are developing a program to upgrade Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) to destroy near-Earth meteors from 20-50 metres in size. Apophis’ approach in 2036 would be a test for this program.

ICBM’s are the kind of long range nukes that the USSR and the USA had pointed at each other for decades during the Cold War. They still have some pointed at each other, and they can be launched quickly. This program would take that technology and improve it for anti-asteroid use.

Typical rockets of the type that take payloads into space are not good candidates for intercepting asteroids. They require too much lead time to meet the threat of an incoming asteroid that might be detected only days before impact. They can take several days to fuel. But ICBM’s are different. They can stand at the ready for long periods of time, and be launched at a moment’s notice. But to be suitable for use as asteroid killers, they have to be upgraded.

Design work on the asteroid-killing ICBM’s has already begun, admitted Saitgarayev, but he did not say whether the money has been committed or whether the authorization has been given to go ahead with the project. But like a lot of things that are said and done by Russia, it’s difficult to know exactly where the truth lies.

There’s no question that being prepared to prevent an asteroid strike on Earth is of the utmost importance. No matter where on Earth one was to strike, the effects could be global. But one thing’s certain: the development and testing of missiles designed to be used in space is unsettling.

It’s also unsettling in light of the January 16th TASS article stating that “The international scientific community has asked Russian scientists to develop an asteroid deflection system on the basis of nuclear explosions in space.” Taken together, the two announcements point towards a program of weaponizing space, something the international community has agreed should be avoided. In fact, there is a ban on nuclear explosions in space.

We don’t want to be alarmist. There are only a handful of countries in the world that have the capacity to develop some protective system against asteroids, and Russia is definitely one of them. And if Earth were threatened by an asteroid, the weaponization of space would be the least of our concerns.

The fact that Russia wants to develop a missile system with nuclear warheads, and employ it in space, is not entirely unreasonable. But it should make us stop and think. What will happen if something goes wrong?

It’s easy to imagine a scenario where an atomic explosion went off in low-Earth orbit. What would the consequences be? And what are the consequences to having one country develop this capability, rather than an international group? How can this whole endeavour be managed responsibly?

What do you think?

 

 

 

 

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Rick Bennette
Member
February 16, 2016 7:35 PM

This is a worthwhile project that can serve to also reunite Russia and the US in a common interest of saving our planet. Making this a dual effort will prevent too much secrecy on one side and fear on the other. What a shame not to have this should we be faced for the need of it by an asteroid headed for Earth.

FarAwayLongAgo
Member
FarAwayLongAgo
February 17, 2016 7:30 AM

Rather together with China or India. They are much easier to work with. The US often cancels space missions with ESA and cannot be relied upon for any expensive long term projects (Exomars and JUICE for example). But all international cooperation is extremely inefficient. It is much cheaper and faster to do it within one single organization and legal framework, than trying to corrupt many thousand more and foreign special interests who only care about how much cash they will be paid for pretending to participate. Putin obviously controls domestic Russian special interests and knows how to bribe them cheaply.

ckzdaj6
Member
ckzdaj6
February 17, 2016 1:23 PM

Nah The US needs to work with someone beside Russia, those Russians are very hard to deal with!

Jim Krug
Member
Jim Krug
February 17, 2016 1:54 PM

I agree, and am glad that the author chose to re-write and tone down his initial posting, which was very sarcastic and accusatory towards the Russians.

This is one of the most worthwhile space ventures I have ever read. And if you don’t think space is already weaponized, then I don’t think you’ve been paying close attention.

Random Sample
Member
Random Sample
February 16, 2016 9:02 PM

What could POSSIBLY go wrong?

Greg
Member
Greg
February 16, 2016 9:17 PM

I would say that developing this capability is a good idea in case we ever need it. I have a big problem test firing on an asteroid that is already set to pass near the earth. It is not hard to imagine a large chunk being inadvertently pushed into an intercept orbit with Earth. It would be better to test it on an asteroid where there is no chance that debris could cross Earth’s orbit.

mikefid
Member
mikefid
February 16, 2016 9:18 PM

Vladimir Putin will be 83 by that time, hope there will be someone more responsible in power by that time.

FarAwayLongAgo
Member
FarAwayLongAgo
February 17, 2016 7:22 AM

By that time too, you mean? Putin is the only efficient statesman in the world right now. He’s an old time traditional Fürst who only wants money without any ideology about how people have to live their private lives. That’s much more sympathetic than the self-hating ideology used by impotent and failed Western politicians who have been so humiliatingly and thoroughly defeated in their Middle Eastern wars and who now lead the final holocaust of Western Europe.

postman1
Member
postman1
February 16, 2016 11:23 PM

I think it is about time someone did something!

SteveZodiac
Member
SteveZodiac
February 17, 2016 4:59 AM

Most of the devastating effects of nuclear weapons comes from the shockwave generated by superheated air. In space all you have is a very hot fireball and lots of gamma rays which will just singe the asteroid. You would have to penetrate it, Pershing II style or carry a large amount of matter to impart some kinetic shock from the nuclear explosion. If the Russians start talking about keeping these things ready on orbital platforms then I predict a huge surge in NASA’s budget.

postman1
Member
postman1
February 17, 2016 10:28 PM

Not so much an increase for NASA. More likely an unknown increase in the black budget for the Air Force Space Command.

Pasander
Member
Pasander
February 17, 2016 5:37 AM

Sounds interesting!! I’m definitely not against it or afraid of it, but I would like to hear a more detailed plan. Sadly, I think this is just Russians boldly talking the talk (common Russian behavior) and nothing will ever come of it.

Btw, according to Wolfram Alpha, gravitational binding energy of Phobos is about 100MT of TNT equivalent. So with a Tsar Bomba using third stage(s) with uranium tamper(s) we could, in principle, blow it to pieces and create rings around Mars! I wonder what planetary protection folks would think about that…

rc davison
Member
rc davison
February 17, 2016 6:51 AM
Who decided that using a nuclear warhead was the best option to taking out an asteroid? And, what international group of scientists asked Russia to be the planet’s guardian for incoming asteroids? There are better technologies available to deflect an incoming asteroid, especially if we have advanced warning. My suspicion is that there is a military advantage for Russia to develop this missile technology and they are using planetary defense as a cover-up. If this were an international effort it would be a lot less threatening. Unfortunately, Putin has done more to set this planet back into a cold war mode than any of his predecessors. This seems like one more step on that path, which doesn’t bode… Read more »
weeasle
Member
weeasle
February 17, 2016 6:51 AM
In terms of the author’s open question about the possibility of inadvertent low earth orbit detonation, the potential benefits far outweigh the risks – I mean serious how much junk was during all the above ground testing and we are all still here right? I also think the likelihood of inadvertent detonation during launch would be low (worst case is the missile blows up on ascent stage showering radioactive material which wouldn’t be nice but it would be pretty small scale compared with aboveground testing (provided it was away from population centers which could be managed). I would agree with other posters here who comment the real danger is that blasting Apophis apart may actually deflect smaller chunks… Read more »
FarAwayLongAgo
Member
FarAwayLongAgo
February 17, 2016 7:12 AM
I think, first of all, that the article needs a little editing. ICBMs are not nukes. They are tested now and then of course without any weaponized payload. Putin won’t send a nuke to space. An ICBM can’t even launch a nuke to orbit, they are sub-orbital vehicles. Actually, I doubt that any ICBM with nuclear payload can reach an incoming asteroid in time. Whatever will be sent to Apophis will be a tiny science instrument. And it’s called meteoroid, when it is a meteor it is kind too late to stop. This must be understood in the light of the Chelyabinsk air burst the other year. Russians are rightly proud of their space program and it is… Read more »
Alkaid
Member
Alkaid
February 17, 2016 7:34 AM
Oh, for Pete’s sake! Russia probably has a treaty obligation which prevents it from developing an ICBM with the capabilities it wants. So you simply claim that it is for planetary defense and there is a good chance that the other signatory to the treaty won’t bother enforcing the agreement. So Russia gets pats on the back for the “altruistic” development of a much more capable ICBM? The real story is likely that Russia is developing a new ICBM and that they tentatively plan to violate other treaty obligations by testing their new warhead in space. You want to be able to saturate a missile defense system but you currently don’t have enough throw-weight to launch something like… Read more »
Richard Kirk
Member
Richard Kirk
February 17, 2016 8:28 AM
Russia has space technology, and they either want to develop it to do something useful and attractive, perhaps to keep the field attractive to new engineers. They don’t want to plant flags, or set up a hotel for millionaires on the moon. I am guessing if the USA had been proposing this, many of the readers would be cheering them on, rather than cranking up the paranoia. Okay, let’s design a nuclear meteor-busting weapon, and see whether it can double as a terrestrial weapon…. You will need a rocket to get everything into space – this may have some properties of an ICBM, as it will have to sit in a bunker for ages. However, it will be… Read more »
FarAwayLongAgo
Member
FarAwayLongAgo
February 17, 2016 7:16 PM

I think the concept of nuking an asteroid is about heating its surface to create outgassing which slowly propels it to a slightly different trajectory. This takes years and cannot be accomplished by a suborbital ICBM detonating just above the atmosphere hours before an impact.

It is a good thing that the Russians keep converting ICBMs to ploughs. But I doubt that any ICBM could be used to deflect an asteroid. Bigger liquid fuel orbital launcher would be needed for such a mission.

hydrazine
Member
hydrazine
February 17, 2016 2:40 PM

Relax. This kind of ridiculous statements come out of Putin’s Russia from time to time. If there is anything that actually gets some extra funding it is the military research and both the development of the Bulava missile and the Kursk disaster show how well that works. It will be another Phobos-Grunt if it ever gets to becoming any kind of hardware. If anything, this announcement is most likely sign of some internal games between different forces within the Russian military complex. No red Moon this time either.

Regards,
/hydrazine

Aqua4U
Member
February 17, 2016 3:34 PM
I’d rather see Russia putting it’s efforts into an upgraded version of their EMP weapon. The USA bought these weapons and used them quite effectively against Iraqi amour columns during both wars. These weapons froze motorized armored vehicles literally in their tracks! These EMP weapons are basically a copper/yttrium cylinder surrounded stainless steel tubing conducting cryogenic temperature liquids. A shaped charge in the copper cylinder is detonated precisely with a capacitor bank driven pulse of electricity into the now superconducting copper tube. The now superconducting electromagnet focuses a beam of greater than 500 million watts! I say put several dozen of these suckers in a rotating dispenser located at the apex of a mirror assembly similar to the… Read more »
SteveZodiac
Member
SteveZodiac
February 18, 2016 9:32 AM

Read this science daily article and you are spot on, probably don’t need anything like as much as 500Mw
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160217140311.htm

nz3777
Member
nz3777
February 17, 2016 7:31 PM
Thats is EXACTLY what I mean, Now if we had come-up with this idea we would be heros all over the world but since its The Enemy Russia then its a risky situation, Oh please give me a freaking break already! I am born and raised American citizen and I have more faith in the Russian goverment then I do in my own!!! Meaning I actually trust what they say is true unlike our lying deceiving SCUM that we have in office for the past 25+ years if not more! …….I am all for this idea and support Russia 100%, if the USA dosent like it, OH WELL! Do something about it its not like they are asking… Read more »
Forty
Member
Forty
February 18, 2016 5:44 AM

I still try to figure out what the “shocking” part of the announcement cold be. That Russia made it and not the US, in which case the author would have loved the NASA plans to deal with PHAs?

sangos
Member
sangos
February 18, 2016 9:32 AM

“…..But like a lot of things that are said and done by Russia, it’s difficult to know exactly where the truth lies.”
Any specific examples? Btw am not sure why the Russians are planning for Armageddon, when it has been proved beyond doubt that this is not the best way to get rid of asteroids hurtling our way.

Homonymous Anonymous
Member
Homonymous Anonymous
February 23, 2016 9:01 PM

Finally!
Nukes used to protect the whole mankind instead of menacing it.

That said, it should be used under an internationnal protocol to avoid turning space into another warzone. I’m pretty sure that a threatening asteroïd could make consensus as a good reason to launch a space nuke. So I would put something like a key switch under the responsibility of a really small commity of specialists made of a few different countries. Something like the Security Counsel of UNO composed of 3 rotating members.

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