Friday, February 28, 2014

Nukes and Space, Space and Nukes

So had an interesting article on research being done towards meteor detection systems, and how to mitigate that threat for Earth. As one can expect, nuclear bombs are a proposed (and perhaps plausible) solution. The notion is that, depending on the size of the asteroid, a nuclear explosion could either fragment the asteroid into harmless (or far less harmful) bits, or it could knock it off course. It would be delivered via a Hypervelocity Asteroid Intercept Vehicle (HAIV), which could theoretically punch a hold in the asteroid, then deliver the nuke, which could have greater destructive force due to the insertion (I guess Operation Plowshare was good for something, right?)

Plowshare Sedan Crater, via Wikipedia
 Asteroid detection is another concern, however, especially in the light of last year's meteoric explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia, which nobody saw coming. Similarly, the Tunguska Event in 1908 (also in Russia) is also (I think) thought to have been a meteorite.

in 2015, the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System) is expected to be online, with warnings ranging from a day to three weeks. In a strange mirror, the sizes of asteroid impacts, like nuclear ones, are also measured in megatons (the above linked site calls a "city killer" 5 megatons, and a "county killer" 100 megatons (like the Tsar Bomba).

One big ol' pothole in a plan like this is the fact that it's illegal to put nuclear weapons in space, per the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (which I mentioned while discussing mining on the Moon).

I've got a question I'm not smart enough to answer, though.

See, with an implosion device, you have a disc of plutonium, surrounded by conventional explosives. The explosives are what sets off the chain reaction to super criticality, which makes the nuclear explosion happen. To reach escape velocity from Earth, as any device implemented to intercept a meteor would have to do, a lot of pressure is exerted upon the object leaving our planet. So, are the G forces exerted by launch enough to set off that chain reaction?

Well, the problem is here is I'm not smart enough to do rocket science. I know escape velocity from Earth is essentially 25,000 miles an hour, but I don't know how much pressure that exerts on any one item in a spaceship designed to deal with such rigorous pressures. Comparatively, I don't know the force exerted by that initial explosion/compression on the nuclear payload. So. One can find a bunch of equations online with alchemical looking symbols in them (I'm sure they're Greek or whatever), and if the numbers are equal then yes, launching a conventional nuke in a conventional rocket would on its own trigger the chain reaction that results in a nuclear explosion. Which would mean the asteroid would not, in fact, get blown up and Earth would not be saved.

The answer is probably no. Or, the question has already occurred to somebody and they would make sure the answer was no. I know at least one person who's math minded who I will get to do the equations for me (once I find them again, of course). 

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