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?
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