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Fraser
2016-Feb-17, 12:20 AM
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In a shocking announcement, Russian scientists say they want to test improved ballistic missiles on the asteroid Apophis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/99942_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 (http://tass.ru/en/science/855968) 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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intercontinental_ballistic_missile) (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 (http://tass.ru/en/science/850092) 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?




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Trebuchet
2016-Feb-17, 01:12 AM
What could possibly go wrong?

efanton
2016-Feb-17, 02:51 AM
I could see the sense of it if they were setting the bomb off some distance from the asteroid (no impact) and using the shock wave to divert it, but an actual impact would be a scary proposition.

We cant have our bread buttered both sides. It is inevitable a time will come when something is definitely going to hit the earth with serious consequences, possibly mass extinctions. Would be be crying at the Russian's then?

If there is no impact involved and the trajectories and control of these missiles is not handled by the military (any military) but by consensus among the worldwide scientific community I think it should be allowed to go ahead.

joema
2016-Feb-17, 06:07 PM
We discussed this general area extensively in this thread, http://cosmoquest.org/forum/showthread.php?98907-Why-not-vaporize-an-asteroid-or-comet-on-a-collision-course-with-earth.

Despite what these recent articles say, I don't think nuclear explosions in space are banned. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) only prohibits "stationing" weapons of mass destruction in space -- IOW putting them in orbit: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Outer_Space_Treaty_of_1967

Using nuclear warheads to deflect asteroids has been studied. In space there is no atmosphere and no blast effect. The general approach is a precision stand-off detonation whereby X and neutron radiation vaporize a thin layer of surface material, creating an ablative impulse and associated delta-V to nudge the body off course.

If the object was detected decades in advance, there would obviously be non-nuclear options. If it was not, then the choice is between using a nuclear warhead or accepting the damage when it hits earth. There are obviously cases where even a nuclear warhead would not work due to insufficient warning time or object mass is too large to deflect. However it gives additional options since the achievable deflection energy is roughly six orders of magnitude greater than other methods.

A large ICBM with a pared-down payload has the delta-v to reach some NEOs. In fact a Titan II ICBM launched the Clementine probe to the moon. However the guidance system would have to be replaced, as it's not designed for extended deep space use, and a terminal homing and fusing system would have to be devised. The basic technology already exists in ABMs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exoatmospheric_Kill_Vehicle By coincidence the last of 528 nuclear detonations within earths atmosphere was a Nike Hercules anti-ballistic missile interceptor in 1962, Operation Dominic Tightrope: http://www.thisdayinaviation.com/tag/operation-dominic-tightrope/

See "Deflecting Asteroids by Means of Standoff Nuclear Explosions": http://research.dynamicpatterns.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Deflecting-Asteroids-by-Means-of-Standoff-Nuclear-Explosions.pdf

"Nuclear Explosion Near Surface of Asteroids and Comets - General Description of the Phenomenon": http://csc.ac.ru/news/1997_1/ae27.pdf

For more general info see: http://www.science20.com/citizen_science_journal/protecting_planet_requires_heroes_money_and_citize n_scientists-78070

publiusr
2016-Feb-19, 10:42 PM
I have no problem with nukes--but let us do this to something that doesn't come into easy range--and that could be pushed into a keyhole.

ICBMs aren't the answer.

Take a look at this trunk for SLS Orion: http://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=39601.msg1493362#msg1493362

That is how a nuke needs to be positioned. With control--at a distance--by hand.

Detonated remotely of course, with the Orion out of harms way.