The European Commission funded Russian scientists to develop plans to save the world from rogue asteroids by blowing them up with nuclear weapons.
Scientists from the Russia’s top space research institute teamed up with missile and rocket engineers to look at ways of sending a warhead into space under a European Commission funded program called NEOShield.
“Work was distributed among various participants from different countries and organisations, and work on deflecting dangerous space objects with nuclear explosions was conducted by Russia” between 2012 and 2015, the Central Scientific Research Institute of Machine Building, part of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, said in a press release on Saturday.
The stationing and use of nuclear weapons in space is banned under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, but Russian researchers believe that governments may drop objections to firing a nuclear-tipped missiles into deep space if the planet is in imminent danger.
“If the asteroid threat becomes a matter of serious damage or even the very existence of life on earth, that ban would naturally be lifted,” the institute said.
Scientists concluded that the safest method would be to carry out the detonation while the asteroid was still in deep space, and the aim would be to alter the object’s course and direct it away from the Earth, rather than to destroy it.
The idea is that a nuclear explosion close to a comet or asteroid would burn up some of the object’s mass, in turn producing a jet-thrust effect which would change its orbit.
The Earth has suffered multiple large asteroid impacts in its history, including a six-mile wide object believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs when it crashed into what is now Mexico.
More recently, nearly 1,500 people were injured and 7000 buildings damaged when a 20 meter wide meteor exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013.
In 1908 a much larger asteroid, estimated to have been 60 to 190 metres across, flattened 770 square miles of uninhabited forest when it exploded over Tunguska in Siberia with the force of 1000 Hiroshima bombs.
Scientists believe that it is a question of when, not if, another potentially devastating impact occurs. And using nuclear bombs – or “blast deflection” – is just one option NEOShield researchers looked into.
Other proposals include a “kinetic impactor,” which would attempt to alter an asteroid’s course by crashing a spacecraft into it, and a “gravity tractor,” which would use the small gravitational attraction between an asteroid and a nearby spacecraft to nudge it onto a different orbit.
Details of the research emerged as Russia announced plans to establish an early warning centre to scan the skies for potentially dangerous objects on a collision course with earth.
In a statement outlining new goals for the Russian space program up to 2025, the Institute said it would develop special software to track asteroids approaching the planet.
The “space barrier” project would use four observation satellites – two in geostationary orbit around the earth and two following the Earth’s obit around the sun – to scan space for any sizeable asteroid that could present a threat to the planet.
“It’s a unique concept and may be the most effective for proactive detection of dangerous celestial bodies 30 days or more prior to their entry into the Earth’s atmosphere,” the Institute said.
NEOShield brought together 11 research institutions, including Queen’s University Belfast and the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey. A three-year follow up program, called NEOShield-2, was launched in March 2015.
The Central Scientific Research Insitute of Machine Building, also known by its Russian acronyn TsNIImash, is Russia’s leading developer of space technology and has been involved in the testing and experimentation on almost all Russian space vehicles and launchers.