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nuke in orbit (1 Viewer)

Olly Buckle

Mentor
Patron
That looks like you have it. Take size into consideration, most nukes designed for war use are from kilotons to about 1.5 megatons and the one in your picture is around the top end of that (I think they said 1.4 megatons), On the other hand there have been bombs of 40 or 50 megatons exploded in tests, I don't know if that would produce a flash that was literally blinding from ground level. Without the forces of gravity and air it makes sense that it would be a symmetrical bust expanding in all directions
 

CyberWar

Senior Member
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFYmcwNr_hs

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkujMTSFr9o

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZoic9vg1fw

These ones are from the Starfish test series in the early 1960's. Mind that many of the explosions in this footage have been filmed through a filter and slowed down, so an observer on the ground likely wouldn't be able to make out any quite as elaborate details. It would basically look like a brilliant white-blue flash lasting a few seconds, followed by a spectacular auroral display and atmospheric glare that would last for about 10-15 minutes, provided there are no clouds to obstruct sight.

You could immediately tell it's a nuclear flash when the EMP concurrently blows every single fuse within line of sight of that blast, and melts down every single electronic device that hasn't been hardened to withstand such overloads. If I recall correctly, a one-megaton explosion in low Earth orbit (around 400 km altitude) would shut down most of the continental United States.

As for the blast itself, it wouldn't cause much direct danger. At such distance, it would only blind you temporarily if you were looking directly at it, there would be no blast wave or even the faintest sound since there's no air to make any with that high, and you wouldn't feel the thermal pulse either. At this distance, you would likewise be safe from the radiation, the fallout from high-altitude blasts being limited to a few tons of vaporized material from the weapon and its carrier missile itself, most of it blown off into space or safely trapped high above in the Earth's magnetic field. You might experience some weird sounds in your ears caused by the microwave auditory effect, but that's about it. All the real dangers would come from the indirect effects caused by the EMP, such as planes starting to fall out of the sky, transformer stations catching fire from the overload, emergency services being knocked out of action, etc.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
Would there be any sound?
Granted, they are outside the atmosphere - but would there be some sort of compression via the force of the explosion that would create noise?
 

CyberWar

Senior Member
Would there be any sound?
Granted, they are outside the atmosphere - but would there be some sort of compression via the force of the explosion that would create noise?


Not really, I'm afraid. Sound waves cannot form and propagate if there is no matter to propagate through, and at orbital altitudes, there certainly isn't. In a space detonation, the only place with sufficient matter density to allow the propagation of sound would be the nuclear fireball itself - but any potential observer caught within the fireball would obviously be instantly incinerated. For this reason, nukes wouldn't be very effective WMDs in outer space, as it takes atmosphere for a destructive blast wave to form. (Not that it makes nuclear explosions in space any safer to be anywhere near because of the other effects like EMP and radiation that they produce.)

That said, a nuclear detonation in space would cause another interesting phenomenon that might in theory generate some noise. A nuclear explosion emits huges amounts of radiation across the spectrum. An object close enough to the blast would be bombarded, among other things, by high-energy X-rays that would instantly vaporize its outer surface, turning it into plasma. As this plasma rapidly expanded, it would generate shockwaves that would propagate within the object. If the said object was a space station, an astronaut inside it would in theory be able to hear an explosion - but it wouldn't be that of the nuclear bomb, but rather the skin of his own space station flash-boiling away. Naturally, that is only in theory - the radiation levels required for this effect would instantly kill any human observer and destroy any recording equipment, the expanding plasma more than likely tearing apart the space station as well, rendering such an experiment impractical.

Early ABM systems that weren't accurate enough to reliably intercept incoming missiles with a direct hit would exploit this radiation blast slightly differently, taking into account that their their targets carried fissile payloads. The idea was basically to detonate a nuke in close proximity to incoming missiles and bombard their warheads with enough radiation to induce spontaneous fission inside their plutonium cores. Ideally, this would cause the warheads to fizzle (undergo partial detonation at low yields), or in the very least produce enough heat to deform their cores, resulting in an imperfect core geometry and thus rendering the warheads useless. This way, even a near miss (within a mile or two) would reliably neutralize any incoming warheads. Obviously, the problem was that the intercepting missiles would have to be nuclear themselves, the resulting explosions causing massive EMP damage to unshielded circuits over huge areas and, more importantly, blinding the targeting radars for several minutes afterwards - the enemy could just fire his missiles in waves, the second wave being timed to use this radar-blinding effect for cover to fly inside minimum interception range. As targeting radars and guidance systems evolved, future generations of ABMs would shift to non-nuclear methods of interception.

Another interesting use proposed for this ablation effect was Project Orion - a nuclear pulse engine for spaceships, which would essentially have used nuclear bombs for fuel. The idea was basically to mount a massive metal shield on a damper behind the spaceship, and then periodically eject and detonate a nuclear bomb just behind it, the radiation causing the surface of the shield to ablate, providing thrust. In theory, this would have made for an engine orders of magnitude more powerful than any chemical rocket or ion thruster, making regular interplanetary travel and colonization practical. Obviously, it was never built in practice - technical issues and cost aside, nobody was exactly comfortable with the idea of having a spaceship with a whole arsenal of nukes fly above their heads during the height of the Cold War.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
Thanks again! Great info.

The nuclear detonations are intended to cause an EMP. This isn't a world war, but a dystopian period where governments have fallen to near anarchy and are busy trying to hold on to their own territory rather than invade another country. The explosions will come about when a hacker gets through the old defense department network and sets them off to end a civil war (common military weapon is a hand held railgun - so an EMP would fry their circuitry).
 

Olly Buckle

Mentor
Patron
The chemistry of the upper atmosphere is quite delicately balanced (Think CFC's) the radiation flash would muck that up big time and for a long time to come. If your hacker did too many of them he might make the planet uninhabitable by destroying protective layers in the upper atmosphere.
 

Moose.H

Senior Member
A high altitude EMP could be Humanity's worst warfare. Normal nukes would remove considerable production capacity but also a massive amount of people. EMP would kill most machinery and nearly all modern gadgets leaving a country unable to feed hordes of hungry urbanites. The amount of deaths could well exceed other attacks because they would consume resources necessary to keep a base population going... ouch.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
The chemistry of the upper atmosphere is quite delicately balanced (Think CFC's) the radiation flash would muck that up big time and for a long time to come. If your hacker did too many of them he might make the planet uninhabitable by destroying protective layers in the upper atmosphere.

Only one will set off - over the US Southwest, and I realize that it would affect a very wide area beyond its intended target. The intent of the EMP is to disable the high tech weaponry on both sides of a conflict, thereby reducing the immediate casualties and making the conflict visceral; to shoot and kill someone from a distance is almost a dispassionate act as compared to stabbing them with a knife of beating them to death.

The event occurs at the end of the story (only 2 chapters follow it), and so the distant affects don't play a part in the story - although I may mention it briefly.
 

CyberWar

Senior Member
The chemistry of the upper atmosphere is quite delicately balanced (Think CFC's) the radiation flash would muck that up big time and for a long time to come. If your hacker did too many of them he might make the planet uninhabitable by destroying protective layers in the upper atmosphere.


I don't think a lone nuke, or for that matter, even the whole world's nuclear arsenal detonating in orbit would do much to mess up the ozone layer. It has survived far more energetic astronomical events without any permanent ill effects. Consider, for example, the Carrington Event of 1859, the most powerful solar flare on record. The energy that impacted Earth's outer atmosphere on that day would make the output of all the world's nukes combined look like a firecracker. It produced brilliant auroras that could be seen as low as Havana, in the tropics. The EMP generated by the event was such that the energized telegraph lines could operate for several hours without being connected to a power source - and in fact operated better than under power from the flimsy batteries of the day. Had a solar eruption like this struck today, it would take up to 20 years for the world to fully recover. Yet Carrington Event did not have any measurable effect on the ozone layer, because it lies well under the protective shield of the Earth magnetic field.

Even though an orbital nuclear explosion takes place well inside the Earth magnetic field, it still doesn't have nearly enough energy to destroy or even significantly affect the ozone layer simply because the radiation levels necessary to do that disperse exponentially with distance from the blast. Most of the charged particles emitted by the blast would be immediately trapped within the magnetic field, forming a temporary radiation belt in orbital altitudes (which is exactly what happened during the Starfish tests) that would be dangerous to satellites passing through it, but little else. The rest of emissions (i.e., gamma rays) would disperse long before reaching the ozone layer.

In short, it would take nothing short of a major astronomical event (such as a nearby supernova) to overwhelm our planet's natural defense shield and destroy the ozone layer through irradiation alone.

Now, a series of nuclear detonations within the lower atmosphere would be a whole different matter, but for a whole different reason. They would destroy the ozone layer by lofting large amounts of smoke and soot into upper atmosphere, destroying ozone by means of chemical reactions.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
I don't think a lone nuke, or for that matter, even the whole world's nuclear arsenal detonating in orbit would do much to mess up the ozone layer. It has survived far more energetic astronomical events without any permanent ill effects. Consider, for example, the Carrington Event of 1859, the most powerful solar flare on record. The energy that impacted Earth's outer atmosphere on that day would make the output of all the world's nukes combined look like a firecracker. It produced brilliant auroras that could be seen as low as Havana, in the tropics. The EMP generated by the event was such that the energized telegraph lines could operate for several hours without being connected to a power source - and in fact operated better than under power from the flimsy batteries of the day. Had a solar eruption like this struck today, it would take up to 20 years for the world to fully recover. Yet Carrington Event did not have any measurable effect on the ozone layer, because it lies well under the protective shield of the Earth magnetic field.

Even though an orbital nuclear explosion takes place well inside the Earth magnetic field, it still doesn't have nearly enough energy to destroy or even significantly affect the ozone layer simply because the radiation levels necessary to do that disperse exponentially with distance from the blast. Most of the charged particles emitted by the blast would be immediately trapped within the magnetic field, forming a temporary radiation belt in orbital altitudes (which is exactly what happened during the Starfish tests) that would be dangerous to satellites passing through it, but little else. The rest of emissions (i.e., gamma rays) would disperse long before reaching the ozone layer.

In short, it would take nothing short of a major astronomical event (such as a nearby supernova) to overwhelm our planet's natural defense shield and destroy the ozone layer through irradiation alone.

Now, a series of nuclear detonations within the lower atmosphere would be a whole different matter, but for a whole different reason. They would destroy the ozone layer by lofting large amounts of smoke and soot into upper atmosphere, destroying ozone by means of chemical reactions.

Wow - great information! Thanks!
 
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