5 March 2012, 18:11

Russian space program: avoid asteroid impact and reach the limit

Russian space program: avoid asteroid impact and reach the limit

Russian outlines its space research strategy for the 21st century. Russian vice PM Dmitry Rogozin named three priorities in space. These are asteroid impact avoidance, development of space stations and manned and unmanned missions in the outer space.

Russian outlines its space research strategy for the 21st century. Russian vice PM Dmitry Rogozin named three priorities in space. These are asteroid impact avoidance, development of space stations and manned and unmanned missions in the outer space. 

Getting ready for rendezvous 

On March 2, Dmitry Rogozin, vice chairman of the Russia Government visited the Central Science Research Institute for Mechanical Engineering and made several statements setting new aims for Russian space science and technology. The first one concerned the search for asteroids and comets that may result potential hazards for the Earth from the outer space. Second, the vice prime minister doubted whether it is viable to continue manned space activities onboard orbital stations or even on the Moon, which would be re-iteration of what the USA have earlier achieved. Instead, Dmitry Rogozin suggested building new research and operational facilities on other planets. 

Asteroid threats attract public attention after each and every discovery of a previously unknown space minor body, which can possibly harm the Earth (by the way, to devastate a significant region, space debris may have only a few hundred meters in diameter). In the early February this threat, and namely an asteroid 2011 AG5  was on the agenda of the 49th session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). 

This object was discovered in early 2011 and was determined to have a diameter of about 140 m. It is assumed that it can cross the Earth's orbit with certain probability of collision in 2040 (currently estimated as 1 to 625). It is worth to note however, that its orbit is known very inaccurately, so that further observations are needed to assess the real risk. 

Another minor body which grasped media attention is an asteroid 2012 DA14, which goes to close encounter with the Earth in February 2013. It is deemed to pass very close to the mankind, even lower than many satellites — at about 30 thousand km, and, moreover, a collision cannot ruled out as well. Still, as it has about mere 50 m in diameter, the collision may not occur, as the object will be destroyed during passage in the atmosphere, with perhaps probable accompanying effects resembling those of Tunguska. 

To intercept or not, that is the question 

Many countries, the USA, the UK, Italy and Germany, to name only a few, run their own or mutual programs on monitoring the sky for potentially hazardous objects, which are those that come close to the Earth and are big enough to cause serious damage. Around 1300 of such asteroids have been found to date, and asteroid Apophis was supposed to be one of the most dangerous among the objects discovered. It is around 350 m in diameter, and will come to the Earth twice. The first time will be in 2029, and this rendezvous will determine the second time in 2036, namely, whether it will pass the Earth safely or hit the planet. 

To find an asteroid is not an easy task, since the sky is too vast, while the asteroids are too small and often dark. Comets are no less easy to track, although they approximately 100 times less numerous, as they frequently go along extremely elongated orbits and seem to appear from the blue. 

Currently there are no similar programs in Russia, but in 2006 a special expert group on the asteroid  threat was formed under the aegis of the Council for Space of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 2011 it has undergone reorganization, and now is known as an expert workgroup on space threats (including space junk). It is working, among other tasks, on the project of the federal program for space threats' counteractions. 

There is also the Apophis project under development in Lavochkin design bureau. It is planned that a spacecraft would place a radio beacon on Apophis asteroid with the aim to determine orbital parameters of the latter. It might be also useful to study the asteroid composition as well. This would enable the researchers to develop special methods of its destruction or deflection in case of emergency. The project is however in its very early stages. 

Moreover, neither Russia nor other countries have as yet suggested any means to change asteroid trajectory. Several ideas have been discussed, but rather as brainstorming than anything else. Moreover, as for now only research spacecraft have been sent to minor bodies of Solar system, and there were no news on interception missions. 

The skeptics point out that the overall probability of collision with a really large space body is still very low, which was also underlined by Vladimir Popovkin, the head of Roscosmos. Combined with 'Hollywood-like' catastrophe scenarios which are abundant in media, this leads to rather cold attitude towards the threat. 

Meanwhile, the possible anti-asteroid program, if adopted, might bring certain benefits beyond its direct aims. First, constant sky monitoring requires a net of observational stations and data processing systems. Second, before we learn how to demolish an asteroid, we should study a couple or more of them with automated spacecraft. Then, the very task to destroy it or to remove it from the collision course requires very unorthodox ideas. And, finally, such a program might be a good point to start international collaboration. One can imagine a sort of analogue to Large Hydrone Collider, say, “Large Asteroid Collider”. But to focus the whole space program on the asteroid threat would be most unlikely an expedient decision. 

The  Forgotten Moon 

The second suggestion made by Dmitry Rogozin concerns space stations on other planets, but not on the Moon, also seems uncommon. Strictly speaking, current focus of Russian space program was to a large extent caused by Phobos-Grunt failure. According to the plan, two lunar mission were to follow, namely Luna-Resurs (together with Indian Space Research Organisation, project Chandrayaan-2) and Luna-Glob to study lunar polar regions. 

These two projects shall also be the first stage of the lunar exploration, although its tasks are far from decided. They might be automated scientific facilities, or a manned lunar research base, or a testbed for future interplanetary flights. The last option is the most controversial as well, but despite this, the Moon is a good testing range, as it is far enough to test all crucial elements for such a journey, and close enough for the crew to be able to return to the Earth. 

Provided that, 'following the US' that was the point of Dmitry Rogozin) is rather following some natural way of things. Before one starts any ambitious projects, it is necessary to check and double check all the elements in simpler conditions. Even if now the path to Mars seems rather a fantastic one, its first and more reasonable part goes via the Moon. It is still however uncertain whether manned spaceflight are viable outside low-Earth orbit.

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