Did Russia try to shoot down the Asteroid?

Warning: The following article is what i consider to be “fun”, at least sometimes. So, enjoy the ride, but don’t take it at face value.

So among all the news there was one item generally laughed about – that the Russian Airforce was send out to heroically intercept the asteroid. Of course they couldn’t … or could they?

An asteroid is, after all, nothing but an object on a purely ballistic trajectory – just like an ICBM. It just so happens to be rather fast. (About two to four times as fast.) Russia not only developed systems to intercept ICBMs and satellites, but it put them back into service about 4 years ago. While the S400 seems to be capable enough, I haven’t found any S400 stationed anywhere near the trajectory of the asteroid. But there is a MiG-31 based system and a Russian airbase equipped with MiG-31 airplanes 450 km south of Chelyabinsk, perfectly situated to intercept the asteroid without anybody in Chelyabinsk noticing.

The asteroid would have to be picked up using radar. As any self-respecting conspiracy theorist will tell you, they won’t tell you about it if they did. It is at all not impossible, just very unlikely. Satellites are routinely surveyed using radar. The asteroid in question would be larger than a typical satellite in a geostationary orbit (about 36,000km away) and there would have been the chance to detect it further out, perhaps as much as 100,000km away. At 30km/s this would give you a warning time of about one hour.

Ignoring the fact that there is not much reason for Russia to have ICBM interceptors ready to scramble within minutes in 2013, there is no reason not to assume that 15 minutes before impact a couple of MiG-31 “Foxhounds” were up in the air, using their top speed of 1km/s to give an extra boost to their ASAT missles. Guided by radar designed to pick up ballistic missles at several hundred km distance, they should be capable of picking up the much larger asteroid a few thousand km away – giving them two precious minutes to intercept the asteroid at an altitude of 300-400km.

What we do know for sure is, it didn’t work. It might as well never have happened.

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2 thoughts on “Did Russia try to shoot down the Asteroid?

  1. If they did hit it, would we know? Neutralizing a ballistic missile is easy – just damage it enough that the nuke won’t be able to detonate. Neutralizing a giant hunk of rock is much harder. Would an ASAT missile have enough energy to blow it apart?

    • First of all, this article was a bit of a joke, although I take fun quite serious sometimes. ;)

      In general, it depends on the ASAT missle. The Deep Impact spaceprobe had a dense 370kg impactor, resulting in an approximately 30m deep, 100m wide crater. This would have been enough. But ASAT missles like the S400 seems to only have a 45kg warhead (in this case it doesn’t matter that it is high explosive) and probably a bit more mass to go along with it. Given that the asteroid seems to have been at least 15m (or 17m) in size and the ASAT rocket isn’t a dense impactor, there is probably a good chance for the asteroid to survive mostly intact. The problem isn’t lack of energy, but lack of penetration to actually bring the energy to bear.

      But the resulting debris, even from a failed attempt, would have been easily visible in the numerous videos.

      Building a dedicated rocket with a specialized warhead for such purposes (e.g. made from lead or depleted uranium), deployed in ballistic missles with storable fuels, should be quite possible within regular military structures of the US, France, Great Britain, Russia, or other countries. The problem then is finding the asteroid and hitting it.

      The problem with the story isn’t the possibility to reduce such an asteroid to small enough debris to avoid damage. The problem is just about every single step inbetween in this particular situation. Detection would be pure luck. Having an ASAT missle ready at the particular airport is the next problem. Having pilots and crew ready at 4am is the next problem. I can’t tell if the radar of the ASAT is actually capable of tracking an object like an asteroid – or if it would be dismissed as a malfuction due to high range and implausibly high velocity (for either satellites or ballistic missles). And then, you’d still have to hit.

      No part of this is impossible or even particularly hard compared to other problems – but only if dedicated equipment and personell are available. If they are not, it becomes implausible, if not impossible.

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