The Russian government is going to revamp some of its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) in order to blow up asteroids before they reach Earth.
Sabit Saitgarayev of the Russian Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau claimed during an interview with the Russian TASS news agency the government intends to use some of the missiles in its arsenal left over from the Cold War in the new endeavor.
Apparently, the nuclear-armed ICBMs would be used to target asteroids with a 20 to 50 meter diameter (approximately 65 to 164 feet). Asteroids of these sizes are difficult to detect, and using an ICBM to take them out before they hit Earth would be the last line of defense preventing a potential catastrophe.
“Unfortunately, we only know about roughly 1% of those asteroids that get down to the 30-meter size, so there’s a tremendous amount out there that we have yet to discover,” said Jason Kessler, NASA’s man in charge of identifying potential asteroid threats, to CNN.
Larger asteroids obviously pose a major threat, but are easier for researchers to detect. Kessler said that NASA has “discovered about 95% of the one kilometer or larger asteroids.”
The U.S. has a less kinetic approach to dealing with asteroid threats, particularly the larger ones. One idea is the possibility of using a landing craft to push an asteroid off course or use its gravitational pull to change its trajectory away from Earth.
While Russia’s desire to knock out potentially dangerous asteroids hurtling toward Earth may seem noble on its face, there is also serious concern that such capabilities could also be used in warfare. ICBMs are tailor-made to carry nuclear warheads, which is of course a concern in and of itself, because missiles capable of shooting down an asteroid could just as easily shoot down a satellite or space station.
“Russia senior leadership probably views countering the U.S. space advantage as a critical component of warfighting,” wrote Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in the 2016 Worldwide Threat Assessment in early February. “Russia and China continue to pursue weapons systems capable of destroying satellites on orbit, placing US satellites at greater risk in the next few years.”
“Threats to our use of military, civil, and commercial space systems will increase in the next few years as Russia and China progress in developing counterspace weapon systems to deny, degrade, or disrupt US space systems,” warned Clapper, who noted that the Russian Duma (legislature) has spurred on continued research into space missiles that would “be able to intercept absolutely everything that flies from space.”
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