Why Is Russia Pointing Nuclear Missiles at Asteroids?

By Markets Fool.com


Chelyabinsk meteor caught on car dashcam, Feb. 15, 2013. Image source: Aleksandr Ivanov via Wikimedia Commons.

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On Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, the asteroid 99942 Apophis came within 0.1 astronomical units (A.U.) of striking Earth, carrying a force of 100,000 Hiroshima bombs, and potentially wiping out mankind.

That sounds pretty scary, until you realize that one whole "A.U." is the distance from the Earth to the Sun, and that therefore, Apophis missed us by about 9 million miles. Nevertheless, astronomers are still not 100% certain that the next time Apophis comes a-calling -- on Friday the 13th, April 2029 -- it will miss again. Scientists think that Apophis will miss the Earth by about 18,000 miles then. But there's still a "less than 1-in-45,000 chance" that we'll get clipped.

And even if we dodge that bullet, the orbital courses of Earth and Apophis will "intersect" again in 2036, producing yet another (hopefully smaller) chance of our getting whacked by this 300-meterwide space rock.

Russia doesn't want to take that chance.

Apocalypse Now... or Armageddon soon?
After all, Russia had an up-close-and-personal experience with a wandering asteroid on Feb. 15, 2013, when a meteor exploded in the skies high above Chelyabinsk, releasing energy equal to more than 20 Hiroshimas before it hit Earth's atmosphere, and injuring some 1,500 residents. Worried that an even larger asteroid such as Apophis might one day strikeEarth, Russian scientists are taking steps to ensure it doesn't. According to state news agency TASS, Russia has begun repurposing part of its nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal for asteroid destruction duty.

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Why use ICBMs? According to TASS, most civilian rockets are powered by liquid rocket fuel and must be filled up before launch -- a process that can take 10 days. But asteroids don't always give 10 days' warning before popping up on our space radar. In particular, for small, previously unspotted space rocks, the alarms may start sounding just hours before impact. NASA says we find about 1,500 new near-Earth objects (NEOs) every year. While most of the larger asteroids are present and accounted for, medium-size asteroids -- those less than one kilometer in diameter -- remain problematic. For those, NASA estimates we've still only found about 25% of what's up there.

Solid-fueled nuclear missiles, being on launch alert 24/7, are admirably suited for a last-minute launch to blast an asteroid before it turns into a meteor. Russia's ICBMs aren't currently programmed to aim at targets above the Earth, however, and will need to be repurposed for such missions. That's what Russia hopes to do -- and with Apophis swinging 'round in just over a decade, Russia thinks the asteroid makes a tempting target for testing its redesign.


U.S. Minuteman III missile at launch. Image source: U.S. Air Force.

Great minds shoot alike
And Russia isn't alone. Earlier this year, NASA set up a Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) to -- you guessed it -- defend the planet from asteroids. In furtherance of that goal, PDCO has been tasked with tracking down 90% of all NEO asteroids by 2020.

Such an ambitious goal will cost money. Indeed, according to website DigitalTrends.com, "millions ... in federal money is set to pour into detection efforts" over the coming years. National Defense magazine puts the number at at least $50 million annually, citing the recently passed fiscal year 2016 budget. This naturally raises the question in investors' minds:

Who will get the loot?
ND identifies several likely suspects who could win these funds, including big defense contractorsLockheed Martin and Raytheon . Lockheed is the company in charge of building NASA's Space Fence, designed to keep track of man-made junk orbiting Earth. Lockheed and Raytheon both bid on the contract in 2013 -- but only Lockheed won it. Similarly, Lockheed Martin and Ball Aerospace helped to build NASA's NEOWISE infrared telescope,specifically designed to detect and track NEOs.

Multiple historic contract wins in the field of space-object detection make Lockheed Martin a logical beneficiary of any new contracts coming out of the PDCO office. Granted, $50 million might not sound like much to a company like Lockheed (which pulled down $46 billion last year, and is NASA's single biggest publicly traded contractor). It might seem even less significant, given that Lockheed won't win all the contracts coming up for bid, and might have to share some of the loot with Raytheon, Ball, or others. But $50 million could be only the starting point.

ND calls $50 million "a drop in the bucket" compared to what it will ultimately cost to categorize all NEO threats, much less develop a means of defeating them. To cite just one example of contracts moving in that direction, in 2022, NASA aims to send a spaceship to asteroid 65803 Didymous in an ambitious experiment to try to push the object into a new orbit far from Earth's own. Once we know who's bidding on that contract, we'll be sure to update you on their chances.

For now, the upshot is this: As time goes by and PDCO ramps up its work "protecting the planet," that $50 million number could swell -- and this could be swell news for companies like Lockheed and its peers.

Asteroids come in all shapes and sizes, from the 50-foot space rock that rocked Chelyabinsk, all the way up to Vesta -- one of the largest asteroids in the Belt, and nearly as big as the dwarf planet Ceres. Image source: NASA.

The article Why Is Russia Pointing Nuclear Missiles at Asteroids? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Rich Smithowns shares of Raytheon. You can find him onMotley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handleTMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 260 out of more than 75,000 rated members.The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.