Russia's Plan to Blow Up Space Rocks Has a Debris Problem

If Putin gets his space rocks off, it might come at a severe cost.

Image Credit: JPL-Caltech

Amateur Bruce Willis impersonator Vladimir Putin has a plan to blast asteroids out of space: Russian rocket scientists are retrofitting ballistic missiles to aim them at near-Earth objects. Sabit Saitgarayev, head of Russia’s Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau, recently told Russian state-run news agency that the researchers hope to test the missiles on asteroid Apophis in 2036.

If an asteroid is ever on track to collide with Earth and wreak all kinds of Michael Bay-inspired havoc, a big missile would be a pretty obvious solution. But the biggest hurdle, according to Saitgarayev, is that it takes more than a week to fuel a ballistic missile. Through this multi-million dollar plan, Russia wants to cut that reaction time down to hours.

The real issue going no one is talking about, however, is that typically when humans fire missiles into space to blow things up, things end poorly. A Chinese missile test in 2007, which destroyed a satellite 500 miles away, was globally condemned for creating hundreds of thousands of hunks of space debris.

That junk orbiting Earth is an increasingly worrisome problem, with an estimated half a million little pieces of junk currently floating around the Earth. Though the pieces might be just inches in diameter, they can still damage satellites we’d rather keep whole. It’s been six years since communication satellites Kosmos 2251 and Iridium 33 smashed into each other, and expensive orbital instruments are still at risk from the fragments whizzing through low-Earth orbit.

Though nukes might be effective at busting up asteroids, some experts have argued that alternative measures are less dangerous. In 2008, Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart argued against ballistics and for gentler solutions. NASA has plans to redirect an asteroid into lunar orbit using robotics rather than nuclear physics, and this could help lead to less explosive methods for dealing with incoming asteroids.

And if you’re worried about Apophis, well, NASA calculated that in 2029, it won’t get closer than 18,300 miles — it will be a bright spot moving rapidly across the sky. On Easter Sunday in 2036 — when it’s predicted to once again come near to the planet — it has a good chance of staying 30.5 millions of miles away.

Unless, of course, Russia blows it up first.

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