Russia wants to destroy asteroids, and they believe they have just the right thing for the job: Cold War-era Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s), retrofitted for use in space.
As Business Insider reports, Russia currently has its eyes on one asteroid in particular: 99942 Apophis, whose erratic orbit means it will be in Earth’s celestial backyard in 2029, 2036, and 2068. Russia doesn’t actually intend to destroy that particular asteroid – they’re more interested in seeing if they can get their missiles to a particular asteroid at all.
— Spaceflash News (@spaceflashnews) February 19, 2016
If Russia can pull it off, then they’ll proceed to build up an asteroid missile defense system which could, in theory, be sent up into space to destroy an asteroid on a moment’s notice.
To do that, they’ll need a particular kind of weapon, and one that they have plenty of: Cold War-era ICBMs. Back in the 80s, the Americans and the Russians pointed them at each other. Now that those days are gone (although whether or not they may be coming back is open to discussion), Russia wants to point them toward space to provide an asteroid-destroying missile defense system.
Russia has a somewhat unique stake in the asteroid-destroying game: an asteroid actually entered Russian airspace and caused significant damage.
In February 2013, according to this Inquisitr report, an asteroid entered the atmosphere (once a space rock enters the atmosphere, it’s called a meteor) over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. The shockwave from that particular explosion shattered windows, set off car alarms, and sent at least 1,500 people to area hospitals. However, those injuries were largely due to damage from the blast — such as shattered glass — and not due to the blast itself.
The Chelyabinsk meteor was estimated to be about 65 feet wide. The Russian asteroid-destroying system, should it get up and running, would be intended to destroy asteroids between 65 and 165 feet wide. If a 165-foot-wide asteroid struck the Earth, it wouldn’t necessarily wipe out almost all life on this planet, like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago. But if it were to strike a populated city, it would reduce it to rubble for miles around, potentially killing millions.
The Chelyabinsk meteor illustrates a problem with the detection of potentially Earth-threatening asteroids: despite all of the telescopes and computer simulations pointed up there, an asteroid can sneak past our observation systems and surprise us all. The people of Chelyabinsk certainly didn’t see it coming.
In fact, the relatively short period between detection and being able to do something about it, with regard to asteroids, is why Russia wants to use ICBMs instead of conventional rockets to destroy asteroids, says Sabit Saitgarayev, the leading researcher at Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau.
“Most rockets work on boiling fuel. Their fueling begins 10 days before the launch and, therefore, they are unfit for destroying meteorites similar to the Chelyabinsk meteorite in diameter, which are detected several hours before coming close to the Earth.”
There are other problems with destroying asteroids besides getting to them quickly enough. For one thing, an international treaty, the Outer Space Treaty, forbids detonating weapons in space. Whether or not the treaty will be amended to allow for the destruction of asteroids remains to be seen.
For another thing, short of vaporizing it with nukes, you can’t exactly destroy an asteroid. Think of it this way: if an asteroid weighing, say, 10 million kilograms is headed toward Earth, and you blast it to smithereens, you still have 10 million kilograms of space rock headed toward Earth. You’ve just succeeded in spreading it out over a larger area.
Meanwhile NASA, according to CNN, is studying safer ways of getting rid of asteroids, namely, trying to deflect them away from Earth, rather than obliterate them.
Do you think the Russian plan to destroy asteroids will get off the ground?
[Image via Shutterstock/Vadim Sadovski]