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

Article Updated: 18 Mar , 2016

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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25 Responses

  1. 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 says:

      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.

    • Jim Krug says:

      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.

  2. Random Sample says:

    What could POSSIBLY go wrong?

  3. Greg says:

    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.

  4. mikefid says:

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

    • FarAwayLongAgo says:

      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.

  5. postman1 says:

    I think it is about time someone did something!

  6. SteveZodiac says:

    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 says:

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

  7. Pasander says:

    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…

  8. rc davison says:

    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 well for anybody.

  9. weeasle says:

    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 towards earth.. Explosions are tricky beasts to control.. Just ask any rocket scientist…

    As for weaponization of space, if the ICBM were launched from earth it wouldn’t really be weaponization of space.. well maybe only for the brief few seconds the nuke went off.. but again I think most people would agree it was for a peaceful purpose (protecting earth’s human population from asteroids) and really doesn’t up the ante in any arms race sense – as the author pointed out both countries have ICBMs pointed at eachother already, so no real change in the status quo there..

  10. FarAwayLongAgo says:

    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 easy to imagine that the public demands that it is used to prevent the asteroids from impacting. It must also be understood that russians like to talk big but deliver little, at least concerning their space program which I follow a bit online. Their space budget is now about half of what it was projected to be a few years ago. I think they’ll concentrate on their core competences of rocket engines and humans in LEO. Launching an ICBM to an asteroid is however not so expensive so that is actually plausible, but more as a propaganda event than any useful planetary protection preparation.

    We launch science missions to asteroids and comets every other year or so now, by a bunch of space agencies and planned also by private initiatives. If these missions, with small modifications, were designed and equipped to also function as reconnaissance missions in the case of a sudden threat, and if they were kept in preparedness until the next one is ready, then within just months or even weeks it could be redirected to launch to the threat rather than to the originally intended science target. Knowing the mass, size, shape, composition, rotation et cetera of an incoming asteroid would greatly help in designing a mission to deflect it same years later.

  11. Alkaid says:

    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 30-40 MIRVs with both real warheads and countermeasures interspersed? You need a more capable ICBM and that means building a new one. Very convenient to claim it is for planetary defense.

    I also fail to see how blasting a whole bunch of debris out of an asteroid is a really good idea. I’ve really not seen anything which suggests nuking an asteroid or comet is going to help the Earth. Arguably it could make things even worse depending on where it would hit the Earth.

    I don’t buy the story.

  12. Richard Kirk says:

    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 much too big for WW III, as it must escape the earth and meet the incoming object in deep space. It will be vunerable to attack all through the boost phase as it accelerates, and that will be much longer than an ICBM. So, the rocket is not a re-purposed tactical weapon.

    Next, the warhead. A nuke is a very compact way of packaging a big burst of energy, but it does not convey much momentum. If you want to deflect a large body, you are going to have to get the nuke inside the object somehow, so it will put its energy into accelerating bits of the object in different directions. You can’t stop and drill a hole – decelerating to match your speed to the object would take too long and use too much energy. You would probably have a couple of conventional impacters in a line, each smacking into the object in the same place, and digging a hole. This sort of thing already exists – there are cratering weapons to make large holes in runways that work exactly like this. If we can get the nuke down by 10 meters, we may spall off enough material with the explosion to significantly change the orbit of the remainder. Again, there are some overlaps with conventional weapons, but the the warhead is not really something we could re-purpose as a weapon.

    Should we be doing this sort of thing? Well, if we are going to do it at all, rather than just sit and hope for the best, we ought to practice. Will it work on ice as well as rock? Will it work on dust, or loosely held aggregates? At launch time, we may not know much about the incoming object is like, so we will have to design something that works on as many types as possible.

    Go for it, say I. Perhaps test it on something that is not coming too close to Earth.

    • FarAwayLongAgo says:

      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.

  13. hydrazine says:

    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.


  14. Aqua4U says:

    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 JWST. Then point it at an intruding comet and microwave nudge that sucker into a harmless dust cloud!

  15. nz3777 says:

    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 for your permission anyway.Who died and made our goverment in charge of the entire world? Good for you Russia, someone taking a stand to these PIGS its about damm time. Nz.

  16. Forty says:

    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?

  17. sangos says:

    “…..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.

  18. Homonymous Anonymous says:

    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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