Right now, Russia is making plans to launch missiles into space. The target: A large asteroid named 99942 Apophis, which is scheduled to pass close to — but not impact — Earth in the years 2029, 2036, and 2068.
The idea is to eventually build a network of missiles that could destroy — at a moment’s notice — oncoming asteroids or comets between 65 to 165 feet wide, reported the Russian state-owned news agency TASS.
While a space rock 165 feet across wouldn’t be enough to wipe out all life on Earth, it could cause catastrophic damage if it were to land in a populated city.
The Chelyabinsk meteor, for example, that exploded over Russia in 2013 was about 65 feet wide. The explosion and resulting shockwave sent 1,500 people to the hospital and damaged 7,200 buildings across six cities.
What’s so scary about the Chelyabinsk meteor is that — despite a growing interest in detecting and cataloging life-threatening space rocks — no one knew it was coming until the moment the fireball burst into view:
But what if Russia had known the meteor was going to strike? There’s a likely chance that they couldn’t have done anything to stop it.
“Most rockets work on boiling fuel. Their fuelling 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,” Sabit Saitgarayev, the leading researcher at Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau, told TASS.
To prevent a future event similar to the Chelyabinsk meteor, Saitgarayev wants to use Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), which stand fuelled and ready to fire at a moment’s notice.
ICBMs are the type of nuclear warheads that the US and USSR had pointed toward each other during the Cold War, though it’s not clear whether Russia would attach nuclear weapons to their missiles, or something else.
Before Russia can start firing their ICBMs at asteroids and comets, however, Saitgarayev says that the missiles need an upgrade, which TASS reports will cost “several million US dollars and the authorities’ permission.”
After all, under the Outer Space Treaty, it’s illegal to detonate nuclear weapons in space — for better or worse.
More unsettling, is that Russia is asking for millions of dollars for a project that has little immediate use. Impacts like that Chelyabinsk meteor are rare — and impacts from even larger objects, like 165 feet across, are extremely rare.
The last time a meteor the size of Chelyabinsk struck Earth was in 1908. At that rate, we shouldn’t expect to see another event like this until the next century. Russia might be better off funding its struggling space program than investing in a missile system that could be well out of date by the time it’s ready for use.
Plus, firing explosives at an asteroid isn’t the best idea for preventing an impact:
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