Russia wants to modify Cold War missiles to destroy asteroids

Updated 12:05 PM EST, Fri February 19, 2016

Story highlights

Russia is seeking to convert Cold War-era ICBMs to intercept asteroids by 2036

The U.S. and NASA have a different anti-asteroid system they hope to have up and running in the 2020s

Washington CNN —  

Russia plans to modify some of its intercontinental ballistic missiles to destroy asteroids before they hit Earth, according to a top Russian rocket researcher.

Sabit Saitgarayev of Russia’s Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau revealed the effort during an interview last week with the government-owned TASS news agency.

The United States is also working on ways to prevent asteroids from hitting Earth, but is taking a very different approach. Instead of blowing up the space rocks, NASA plans to shove them away from the planet.

READ: How NASA will save the earth from giant asteroids

It is the latest frontier in efforts by both countries to tackle a threat to the planet that dates at least from the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The Russian missiles would be used to target smaller asteroids of 20 meters to 50 meters in diameter.

These smaller asteroids can cause significant damage and can sometimes be detected only by observatories a few hours in advance of their reaching Earth.

Sometimes, they aren’t detected at all. In 2013, a 20-meter-wide meteor exploded in the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia, with the estimated force of 300,000 tons of TNT or more, shattering glass in buildings and leaving more than 1,000 people injured.

READ: Russia starts cleanup after meteor strike

None of Earth’s space agencies saw it coming.

“Unfortunately, we only know about roughly 1% of those asteroids that get down to the 30-meter size, so there’s a tremendous amount out there that we have yet to discover,” noted Jason Kessler, the director of NASA’s effort to find all asteroid threats to human populations.

Larger asteroids can cause much more damage but can be detected early by space observatories using advanced telescopes and infrared technology.

Kessler said that NASA calculates it has “discovered about 95% of the one kilometer or larger asteroids,” roughly the size of the one thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs upon impact.

READ: How to land a space probe on a comet

Unlike rockets that deliver satellites to orbit or ferry people and supplies to the space station, intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, are designed to be used during a war and can launch at a moment’s notice.

The prospect of Russia modifying nuclear missiles for outer space is likely to cause alarm within the U.S. military. The office of the Director of National Intelligence has already expressed concern about Russian military activities in space.

Its 2016 threat assessment says that Russia continues “to pursue weapons systems capable of destroying satellites on orbit.” The assessment notes that “the Russian Duma officially recommended in 2013 that Russia resume research and development of an airborne antisatellite missile to ‘be able to intercept absolutely everything that flies from space.’”