Categories: AstronomyNews

Russia’s New Ballistic Missiles to be Tested on Asteroids

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?

Evan Gough

View Comments

  • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

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

    • 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.

  • 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.

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

  • 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...

  • 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.

  • 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..

  • 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.

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