In a slightly strange twist on the story of the bombastic film "Armageddon," Russian scientists have announced that they wish to use spacefaring missiles to destroy Apophis, an asteroid set to pass incredibly close to Earth in the year 2036.
A worrying development of the Cold War, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are already designed to send multiple nuclear warheads extremely long distances. Although they are not yet ready to travel through space, a consortium of researchers at the Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau are planning to adapt them for this purpose, according to Russian news agency TASS.
As ICBMs are always fueled, ready to launch at the push of a button, they would be able to meet an incoming asteroid at a moment’s notice, unlike other missile types that require several days’ worth of fueling. Sabit Saitgarayev, the lead researcher on the project, says that he hopes to be able to use each ICBM to destroy near-Earth objects (NEOs) up to 50 meters (164 feet) in size.
As Apophis comes in at 325 meters (1,066 feet), it seems that several will be needed. Design work on the project has begun, although how much funding it will demand remains unknown, and authorization from the Russian authorities is still required.
This announcement follows on from a recent declaration by the Russian Academy of Sciences, stating it wished to cooperate with NASA and its newly established Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), a program designed to identify and track dangerous NEOs.
A Minuteman III ICBM being launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1982. Everett Historical/Shutterstock
The international community have long been wary about weaponizing space, as noted in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, so they may be concerned by this ICBM initiative. After all, so much could go wrong: The accidental detonation of a nuclear warhead in our upper atmosphere, for example, would cause a worldwide ecological disaster.
Apophis was first discovered in 2004. At the time, this chunk of rock caused a brief period of concern: Initial trajectory estimates seemed to indicate that it had a 2.7 percent chance of hitting Earth or the Moon in 2029. This possibility was eliminated by further calculations, and NASA concluded that it would ultimately pass by our planet at a distance of 31,000 kilometers (19,300 miles), roughly 12 times closer to Earth than our own Moon.
There was still a chance that it would pass so close to our world that the gravitational field would "nudge" Apophis, so that when it swung by again in 2036 it would impact Earth. However, scientists eventually worked out that the chance of this happening was essentially zero, and it would miss us in 2036 by 20 million kilometers (12.4 million miles).
If Apophis ever impacted Earth, it would release 20 times the energy of our most powerful nuclear weapon in an instant. This would still not be enough to darken the sky or freeze the world; a medium-sized asteroid of about one kilometer (0.62 miles) would be required for that sort of apocalypse.