Starfish Prime

By Phil Plait | July 6, 2010 7:30 am

starfish_primeIf you’ve read my book Death from the Skies!, you may remember pages 103-105 where I wrote about a nuclear test called Starfish Prime. The U.S. detonated a nuke several hundred kilometers high in space to see what would happen, and the results were dramatic: the pulse of energy from the 1.4 megaton bomb blast overloaded electrical circuits, and blew out power lines and streetlights in Hawaii from over 900 km away! It also seeded the Earth’s magnetic field with high-energy subatomic particles that took years to completely drain away.

A lot of the results from this test are still classified to this day, but NPR recently reported on some of the effects of the explosion including some newly released pictures. They also have an interesting video too, with some very interesting and frankly scary footage.

It’s hard to imagine doing something so naive and foolish as detonating a nuke just to see what would happen, but on the other hand we learned a lot about the Earth’s magnetosphere from this test… we can endlessly debate the moral implications of such a test, but the scientific knowledge we gained from it is undeniable. And it’s literally true that this knowledge may help us understand, predict, and even mitigate an otherwise disastrous event such as an extraordinarily large solar flare which could rain down a lot of hurt on our little green world.

I can’t say that I’m exactly glad the test was done, but I can say that the warning it provided us was one we needed to know about.

Image credit: Wikipedia.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: DeathfromtheSkies!

Comments (85)

  1. You wrote a book? :P

    Okay, that tired old gag out of the way… It is amazing to read some of the old misconceptions that people (even scientists) had about nuclear weapons when they were first developed. I believe it was Carl Sagan that said every scientific discovery has been surrounded by moral ambiguity. This one is a heck of an example.

  2. Ray

    “It’s hard to imagine doing something so naive and foolish as detonating a nuke just to see what would happen”

    They didn’t do it “just to see what would happen”. That makes the efforts of an entire generation of scientists sound sophmoric. You’re better than Phil.

  3. John Paradox

    I wonder what would happen if a nuke were detonated, say, 5,000 feet under the sea, like in the Gulf of Mexico…

    J/P=?

  4. @Ray:

    So… why did they do it, if not to study “what would happen”?

    Hell, much of early chemistry and physics was driven by this precise mentality. ie, I have this compound, what happens if I: dissolve it, burn it, aerosolize it, combine it with this other compound, etc, etc. Is that sophmoric? No, of course not. It’s simply indicative of our level of knowledge at the time, both regarding what scientists were studying, and the nature of the potential consequences of their actions.

    Frankly, I think you might be putting science on far too high a pedestal. The efforts of scientists have been invaluable but they’ve hardly been universally deep or noble. Sometimes, yes, scientists choose to try something simply because they want to answer the question “I wonder what would happen if…?”

  5. So, do you suppose they had a contingency plan for if they screwed up the Van Allen Belts and caused some really bad stuff to happen.
    I mean if you just discovered something, it stands to reason that you don’t have a really solid idea of what its function is, what sorts of things are connected to it, dependent on it, etc.
    But no matter, they were like 12 year old boys with leftover fireworks. “I wonder what would happen if….”

  6. John Paradox

    5. Non-Believer Says:

    So, do you suppose they had a contingency plan for if they screwed up the Van Allen Belts and caused some really bad stuff to happen.

    Did they have the Seaview standing by?

    J/P=?

  7. MadScientist

    I don’t agree about the alleged scientific value of detonating the bomb high in the atmosphere. Scientists have been studying the ionosphere and the magnetosphere since at least 1920. As for the discovery that ion currents can disrupt our electricity supply, that would have been learned soon after (if it weren’t already known at the time). While some small thing may have been learned about atmospheric transport it was certainly nothing which couldn’t have been learned through other means.

  8. The driving impulse is simply due to our monkey brains. It’s hard-wired into our monkey selves to say “I wonder what would happen/I wonder if I could.” It’s the basis of the accurate engineer/scientist stereotype – working in the lab to make something “just ’cause.” Only after the work’s been done does the question “was that such a good idea?” bubble to the surface.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – we should have evolved from otters. Then we’d just wanna have fun rather than shooting ourselves (and our world) in the foot.

  9. ND

    Crow,

    I thought we weren’t monkey’s. We’re great apes, no? Primates? Ok now I’m confused about what I am.

  10. Captn Tommy

    Actually (#5 Non-Believer) In the NPR artical it was Van Allen himself who suggested it. Read/Listen to the artical, in our 21st century view, it sounds stupid but their was a reason… Curiosity.

    Captn Tommy

  11. drow

    it’s not foolish, IT’S SCIENCE.

  12. Paul

    Sorta makes all the uproar over the RTG in Cassini seem (more) pointless.

  13. @9: Yes, you’re correct. But “monkey brain” has a nice flow whereas “great ape brain” has no poetry to it. And the thought behind it is clear in either case. And seeing as Darwin was okay with considering us all as monkeys it’s okay with me too ;-)

  14. jasonB

    “It’s hard to imagine doing something so naive and foolish as detonating a nuke just to see what would happen,.”

    I faced the same dilemma as a child when I had a bag of M-80s and a bunch of models…

  15. Julian

    @8 Crow:

    But if we were descendant from otters we’d be too busy cracking open shells and raping baby seals to death!

  16. Ned

    Those test were done from Johnston Atoll, now part of a marine sanctuary, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Since WWII the island was gradually enlarged, and several THOR rocket launch pads were built. The THOR was used for Starfish Prime. During another test, Bluegill Prime, a THOR vehicle exploded, incinerating its nuclear payload and raining plutonium dust over much of the island. I’m just glad they never got around to SpongeBobSquarePants Prime.

  17. Allen

    Could’ve been worse. It could’ve ignited our atmosphere, completely obliterating all life on Earth. :v

  18. The Voice of Reason

    The EMP effect from a nuclear weapon detonated in space is still today, a very scary weapon!
    Both the US and Russian military have planned such detonations in the event of all out war between the two countries.
    The US in particular have spent billions hardening key site electronics….I don’t think it was some much of a what will happen if…..I believe they already knew from previous tests, the resulting Emp Effects; this detonation was just a confirmation of that deadly effect.

  19. MathMike

    There is an altitude shot of this test in the movie “Trinity & Beyond”. The movie is a compilation of nuke tests from the cold war era narrated by some guy named Shatner.

  20. Captn Tommy

    Rather funny here, but did any of us ___________(fill in this discriptive) see the SyFy movie this week where the blast wave of a nearby Supernova is deflected by the nuclear Bombs exploded in the Van Allen Belt to boost its power thus saving earth.

    Of course the blast wave destroys most other rocky planets, so the gravitational chaos (not Mentioned) would disrupt orbits and/or throw thousands of large rocks into the lower solar system, etc, etc.

    It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie.

    Though it was correct about frying electronics.

    It is a candidate for top ten Worst Science SciFi movie of 2010, though.

    Enjoy

    Captn Tommy

  21. Tyler Durden

    We need to bring back nukes in space.

    The engineers might have been a little crazy in the ’60s, but you know what they say – there’s a fine line between genius and insanity. They really had guts then – hell, they had plans for an interstellar vessel which, by and large, would have *worked*, using off-the-shelf 1969 components and a good old arsenal of H-bombs being thrown behind the vessel and detonated in order to accelerate the vessel in an plasma shockwave.

    Of course the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the like put an end to those sort of dreams. Sigh… what might have been.

  22. Pi-needles

    @8. Crow Says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – we should have evolved from otters.

    Otters .. or was that beavers instead? ;-)

    Then we’d just wanna have fun rather than shooting ourselves (and our world) in the foot.

    Our world has a *foot*? ;-)

  23. Pi-needles

    In any case, says the science history professor, “this is the first occasion I’ve ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up.”

    What about :

    Gunpowder?

    A new type of firework?

    Or a “special” type of doll? ;-)

    Seriously .. wow. Just whoah. W..T..F..?..!

  24. Chief

    Re: #20 Tyler.

    The plans for these great arks using nuclear propulsion would work but I think if not for the nuclear ban they wouldn’t have gotten off the ground so to speak due to the possiblity of the launch payload of fission material malfuctioning and sending it back to contaminate earth.

    As for these tests, glad it stopped before to0 many satellites have been put in orbit. Don’t remember if the tests by everyone caused any damage to the sats in orbit at that time. Wonder how long the effects lasted as astronauts and cosmonauts were exposed? at some point later.

  25. Spiro Schoeman

    Why is “Death from the Skies not available on Kindle?

  26. Jenita

    Isn’t our planet mostly blue and not green?

  27. Messier Tidy Upper

    @24. Jenita Says:

    Isn’t our planet mostly blue and not green?

    Yes. :-)

    @20. Tyler Durden Says:

    We need to bring back nukes in space. The engineers might have been a little crazy in the ’60s, but you know what they say – there’s a fine line between genius and insanity. They really had guts then – hell, they had plans for an interstellar vessel which, by and large, would have *worked*, using off-the-shelf 1969 components and a good old arsenal of H-bombs being thrown behind the vessel and detonated in order to accelerate the vessel in an plasma shockwave.

    Do you mean Project Orion? See:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion)

    “Would have worked?” How do *you* know that for sure? ;-)

    I find this news fascinating and jaw-dropping and rather creepy. I would never have expected James Van Allen to have been quite so ..nuts. :-(

    I know they did some crazy things back then partly out of ignorance and also the Cold War circumstances but that’s still kinda scary.

    Back in the summer of 1962, the U.S. blew up a hydrogen bomb in outer space, some 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean.

    It would have to be over the Pacific would’nt it? :roll:

    Eleven years later I was born in the New Hebrides (Pacific ocean now Vanuatu) – which could explain a lot. ;-)

  28. Lukester

    Seious question: does this help Muslims feel better about their contributions to math and science?

  29. BJN

    The NPR story by Robert Krulwich leaves the impression that Starfish Prime was the only “space” test of a nuclear explosion. Not true. Both the Soviet Union and the U.S. performed multiple high altitude tests. Starfish Prime wasn’t the highest altitude test. It wasn’t the biggest in terms of megatons. It wasn’t the only thermonuclear test. I can’t figure out what makes it exceptional. The NPR site claims it was the biggest light show explosion ever, but I don’t see the basis for that notion.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-altitude_nuclear_explosion

    We’re serially stupid as a species. Witness recent efforts to resume nuclear testing.

  30. William

    Hind sight is a great gift, We know now the insanity of nukeing the world, was through these experments. If these experiments had not been carried out would we now know how insane nukes and their use are. We did not know then what would happen, E.M.P, never heard of it, didn’t know its effects. now we do. other examples of things we didn’t know then please insert.

  31. T_U_T

    @20 Yeah ! talk about unintended consequences. A treaty meant to protect mankind caused us to get stuck on this mossy pebble, putting our very survival in jeopardy on the long run.

    The test ban treaty needs to be abolished, or at least there needs to be an exception clause for transportation use.

    @23.

    The plans for these great arks using nuclear propulsion would work but I think if not for the nuclear ban they wouldn’t have gotten off the ground so to speak due to the possiblity of the launch payload of fission material malfuctioning and sending it back to contaminate earth.

    A few lost nukes on the ocean floor. So what. Nobody would really notice.

    Wonder how long the effects lasted as astronauts and cosmonauts were exposed? at some point later.

    The ship would gain escape velocity well inside atmosphere ( say the last nuke fired would be at 65 km ), then it would stop accelerating and start again after clearing the magnetosphere. No damage to orbit.

  32. It’s hard to imagine doing something so naive and foolish as detonating a nuke just to see what would happen…

    Actually, that’s not why those nukes were detonated high in the atmosphere. According to a few books about a group of scientists doing research projects for DARPA, the JASONs, these high altitude nuclear tests were supposed to be an early proof-of-concept of a magnetic shield against incoming ICBMs. The theory was that the powerful EMP would effectively knock out gudance and ignition systems of an entire cluster of nuclear warheads and they would fall without actually detonating.

    When the results didn’t meet the expectations, the idea was shelved and the Jasons moved on to other things.

  33. Chris

    @ #19. I think the movie you are talking at is 2012: Supernova. One of my friends was trying to download the 2012 movie and accidentally found that. I by no means watched the whole thing, 3 minutes was more than enough. Total piece of *&%$.

    But this upper atmospheric nuke was really cool

  34. Weed Monkey

    Chief #23:

    Don’t remember if the tests by everyone caused any damage to the sats in orbit at that time.

    It actually did: several satellites on low earth orbit were disabled, including Telstar, the first communications satellite. There’s a starter from Wikipedia: Starfish Prime

  35. andy

    Oooh that looks like a nice coral atoll, wonder what happens when we blow it up.
    And again
    and again
    and again…

  36. Messier Tidy Upper

    ^ Poor old Muruora (spelling?) atoll. :-(

    Greenpeace had to rescue a whole bunch of Marshall (?) islanders from somewhere after one test too or so I think I remember reading somewhere.

  37. Gary Ansorge

    29. Weed Monkey

    The first Telestar didn’t go up until July 10, 1962. The second was launched in 1963. ComSat wasn’t even sold to the public until sept 1964 ( I wanted to buy stock in that company but my dad wouldn’t allow that) so I wonder how we could have damaged a bunch of sats that didn’t even exist yet.

    Gary 7

  38. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    As science , it was overvalued and oversold. Exactly the sort of over sell that many (including BA, IIRC) warn against.

    But hey, at least they got bang for their bucks! (And made another notch on the war pole against the russians.)

    It could’ve ignited our atmosphere, completely obliterating all life on Earth.

    No, that was (IIRC) the concern of the first fission bomb, before they pinned the probability down. A continued chain reaction by hydrogen fusion is exceedingly low, so we can toss nukes around to our hearth’s desire.

    Mind, as in the LHC case the exact same risk has been run through our (and other planets) atmospheres many times over already by cosmic radiation. This is not a Death From The Skies.

    [At least, that should be the situation as soon as the unsustainable primary process has run its course, what was added and remain is spurious interaction. But I am not certain about the actual physics involved, so I hope if someone knows better he/she jumps in and correct my misconceptions.]

  39. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Gary, I believe the wiki and the post covers that: “These man-made radiation belts eventually crippled one-third of all satellites in low earth orbit” – “It also seeded the Earth’s magnetic field with high-energy subatomic particles that took years to completely drain away.”

    No causality was damaged during the experiment. [Despite what Hollywood movies about non-existing “Philadelphia experiments” et cetera will have us believe.]

  40. Gary Ansorge

    33. Torbjörn Larsson,

    “At least, that should be the situation as soon as the unsustainable primary process has run its course, what was added and remain is spurious interaction. But I am not certain about the actual physics involved, so I hope if someone knows better he/she jumps in and correct my misconceptions.]

    There were two errors made in the original assumption about a continuing nuc reaction thru the air;one was that we didn’t know the fusion temps required to initiate fusion in O2 and N2(in the multi billion Kelvin range, as I recall) and that the reactants(O2 and N2) would have to stay in one place long enough for fusion to go exponential(which is kinda hard when you’re blowing your reactants away in an expanding ball, rather than compressing them into a very high density ball of fire).

    Gary 7

  41. I’ve seen footage of those detonations in a documentary. I think someone mentioned it already… Trinity and beyond? I haven’t watched it in years; it’s on VHS. :)

    Better in space than on Earth I suppose? I can imagine a good deal of past scientific discoveries were made when someone asked “what happens if…?”

    The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny …’ – Isaac Asimov

  42. Weed Monkey

    Gary Ansorge, the first Telstar was launched the very next day after Starfish Prime test. A couple of links:
    http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraftDisplay.do?id=1962-029A
    http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4312/ch4.htm (see part [86] Explorers)

  43. Chris Winter

    Messier Tidy Upper wrote: “Greenpeace had to rescue a whole bunch of Marshall (?) islanders from somewhere after one test too or so I think I remember reading somewhere.”

    That might have been the test known as Castle Bravo. It was the first detonation of a solid-core fusion bomb (lithium deuteride). Due to an unexpected side reaction, its yield was 15 megatons — three times what was expected. That was a factor in the widespread contamination.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Bravo

  44. Shoeshine Boy

    @ #25 “Why is “Death from the Skies not available on Kindle?”

    I’m partially responsible for that. I bought a copy, and it was such a disaster (poor formatting, numbers screwed-up, any character not a-z misprinted, etc.) that I complained to both Amazon and then to the author (some guy named Phil) when they blew me off.

    Apparently, the solution was not to fix the problems, but to pull the book. Amazon didn’t offer me a refund, though. So I still have a very poor copy on my Kindle. At least they didn’t do what they did to some people with “1984” and suck it back from my Kindle without my knowledge or permission.

  45. @33 – I too saw part of this Supernova:2012 movie over the weekend. Not only was it bad – it was terribad. I think they were launching shuttles on a daily basis? Loaded with nukes at that! I know it’s Sci-fi (sorry SyFy?) but wow. I couldn’t even wrap my mind around that.

    Needless to say, I didn’t finish it. I ‘m sure it had a happy ending. :D

  46. Shoeshine Boy

    It’s too late to edit my post (#44), but I want to make it clear that Amazon blew me off, not Phil.

  47. John McBryde

    So let me get this right……

    SILLY PEOPLE + BIG EXPLOSION = SCIENCE

    Sounds like a great idea for a TV show.

  48. Chief

    It is interesting to read all the comments and it has given me a lot to think about. It occurs to me that the yield from the bomb pales in comparison to the output from the sun when it sends a storm directly at the earth. Or are the issues here the height at which the experiment was conducted.

  49. Blizno

    1962 was seventeen or so years after the end of World War Two. The Allies won that war thanks to the unimaginable determination of people who refused to be ground under fascist boots, by US industrial productivity reaching never before seen levels and by Josef Stalin shoveling mountains of Soviets in front of Nazi guns. It wasn’t a slam-dunk. It could have gone the other way.

    Afterwards, USA’s erstwhile ally, the USSR, started getting very strong and very aggressive and…they had nukes too.

    It’s fun to cast stones at tigers behind bars in the zoo, make jokes and call them fools.

    These tigers saved us.

  50. G Williams

    “It’s hard to imagine doing something so naive and foolish as detonating a nuke just to see what would happen…I can’t say that I’m exactly glad the test was done…”

    I’m not sure anything done in the pursuit of empirical knowledge can be considered ‘naive’ or ‘foolish’. Nor can I agree that we shouldn’t be appreciative of such an experiment that has given such valuable knowledge with little int he way of real negative consequences.

    This seems also to be implying that nuclear explosives can /only/ be used for negative purposes, that even an experimental nuclear detonation to gain knowledge is fundamentally dangerous and wrong.
    But this idea itself is dangerous and wrong. Atoms for Peace (the U.S. program Operation Plowshare and the Soviet program Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy) both provide quite a number of potentially beneficial uses for nuclear devices, while Project Orion showed that nuclear explosives could be a vital component of future space exploration efforts, and I can think of no better use of /any/ technology than for the exploration and colonization of space.

  51. reidh

    They could have figured it out, without resorting to actually doing it. What a bunch of dumbphux.

  52. Blizno

    51. reidh Says:
    “They could have figured it out, without resorting to actually doing it. What a bunch of dumbphux.”

    How? How could they have figured it out without resorting to actually doing it?
    Perhaps by using many teraflops of computer capacity to model such effects…in 1962?

    As for your attempt to cutesy-up a powerful insult; stop it.

  53. Blizno

    4. Brett from Canada Says:
    “Sometimes, yes, scientists choose to try something simply because they want to answer the question “I wonder what would happen if…?”

    So, a bunch of scientists decided to have a lark and detonated a huge nuke way up in the sky to see “what would happen if…”

    Do you really think that a gaggle of scientists drove to the nuke silo one night and just pressed a button? I really doubt that anything involving huge nukes and potential thermonuclear war with the USSR was ever done just because some geeks pondered, “what would happen if…”

    The cold war was deadly serious and we’re incredibly lucky that events turned out as well as they have. There has been no thermonuclear war other than the two tiny nukes detonated over Japan, horrific as they were. Billions of people have not died from radioactive fallout.
    That’s due to lots of good luck, to lots of sane behavior on all sides and to USA being very competent at nuking stuff, thus making starting a nuke war against USA a very bad idea.

    Nuclear proliferation and possible nuclear war aren’t trivial jokes. We are presently blithely killing ourselves, over decades, by ruining Earth’s beneficent climate, but a single serious nuclear exchange could make humanity extinct within a year.

  54. Radwaste

    Well, dang. Chances are, you don’t know anything about nuclear testing. You should look here.

  55. Chief

    re 51.reidh

    Think of the time period. pencils and slide rulers and basic computers. I think they did pretty good and had to resort to physical tests. Today L.A. Labs still keeps adding to their Petaflops system to try to map an explosion even though there are over 400 tests world wide done towards trying to work out the dynamics behind the bomb.

    I’d like to see you try to get 1/8 of a page down the mathematics they worked out at the time to design the bomb. Not exactly the work of dumbphux.

  56. Gonzo

    It’s hard to imagine doing something so naive and foolish as detonating a nuke just to see what would happen

    While I agree with the sentiment here I have to point out that between 1945 and 1992 the United States detonated 1054 nuclear weapons for exactly this reason.

  57. T_U_T

    It’s hard to imagine doing something so naive and foolish as detonating a nuke just to see what would happen

    If doing potentially dangerous things just to see what would happen is foolish, then entire science is. Earth swallowing black hole at LHC anyone ? Without trying things, we would get stuck in the stone age forever.

  58. keplerlover

    Very well said Blizno!

  59. Travis D

    The test ban treaty was an incredibly stupid idea. We were in no danger from the tests themselves (provided proper safety measures are employed) and what we might have learned is invaluable. We seriously need to abandon the notion that anything nuclear has to be bad and that detonating bombs is something we always should avoid.

  60. Captn Tommy

    #51 In 1962 they could figure it out but just barely. Iam sorry but figuring it out does not equate to doing it.

    I once worked for a company that spent millions on computer simulation of the Best Helicopter ever. They built it and then had to spend several million more to correct all the things they did wrong. Empirical is ALWAYS better than simulation. (And usually proves cheaper)

    We forget these men were smart, at least as smart as the Bad Astronomer, so the had done the figures. The earth wasn’t going to blow up, or burn.

    The Air force as I have read was upset with the loss of several good satilites. The number of sats in 1962 was very small, less than a hundred, as I recall. If this test was done now, In the same place, it would cause havoc.

    Captn Tommy

    The spelling is my own, any resemblance to post Johnstonian spelling is a coincidence.

  61. I dunno, Phil. From the understanding we had at the time, it probably seemed that blowing up a nuclear weapon far away from the Earth’s surface would do a lot less damage than setting it off on the ground, in the ocean, or in the atmosphere — all of which we’d done just to see how destructive the blasted things got — and to intimidate the Soviets, too. By comparison, Starfish Prime looks a lot like good Science.

    The fact that it turned out to be true that setting off a nuke in space was a lot safer than setting it off on the surface *and* we got some other useful scientific data out of the experiment makes it seem, in retrospect, like an awesome idea.

    I also disagree that doing naive and foolish things with explosives, in the name of science or not, has in any way gone out of fashion.

  62. ND

    Nuclear testing on earth definitely has bad consequences. One of John Wayne’s crappier movies was filmed outdoors not too far away from a nuclear test site days after an actual test. The Crew I believe had higher than average cancer rates.

    Of course this could be just an urban legend I’m remembering.

  63. MaDeR

    When I read some comments, I have to wonder: is here bunch of 12 year olds that get wet in pants at thought of multiple nuclear explosions? This is only explanation that I have for anyone that like this retarded insanity called “project Orion”.

    I do not like “OMG nuclear eviiiil” attitude presented by some ecoidiots and various stupid organizations like Greenpeace, but at least nuclear testing ban prevented things like this Orion craziness. This project would be halted anyway, because…

    …today this kind of “launch” would screw over all satellites in proximity of thousands of kilometers. But do not let these pesky details and so-called Reality affect your immature fantasies about as big kaboom as possible.

  64. T_U_T

    This is only explanation that I have for anyone that like this retarded insanity called “project Orion”.ut at least nuclear testing ban prevented things like this Orion craziness.

    This retarded insanity could send a million ton ship to stars. Tell me one sane and intelligent propulsion method that could do the same thing with only technologies available today.
    Unless you do, I will have to stay with retarded insanity.

    …today this kind of “launch” would screw over all satellites in proximity of thousands of kilometers.

    Wrong. As long as it gains most of the speed low in the atmosphere ( say < 60 km ), no damage to the orbit what so ever.

  65. Oh sure. Nuclear Pulse Propulsion is “retarded insanity” just because it would take out every satellite within thousands of kilometers.

    There’s a fairly obvious solution — move it thousands of kilometers away from any satellite before firing it. Space is big. Objects in space are tiny.

    The cool thing about NPP is that it offers an otherwise unreachable combination of thrust and fuel efficiency, which could have valulable applications for inexpensive interplanetary flight. So no, it’s not all about adolescent fascination with oversized firecrackers.

  66. @ T_U_T “To the stars” is an exaggeration (a theoretical best would get a ship to Alpha Centauri in around 40-50 years), and upper-atmospheric detonations do not sit well with this Bear.

  67. MaDeR

    “This retarded insanity could send a million ton ship to stars.”
    Papier rocket always fly better than real rocket.

    “Unless you do, I will have to stay with retarded insanity.”
    Sit inside your fantasy as your wish. I prefer to stay with things that actually get to build, fly and do not screw utterly environment around just casually by the way. Yes, they cannot do fantastic things. Your Orion cannot do these too – because it does not – nor will ever – exist.

    “Nuclear Pulse Propulsion is “retarded insanity” just because it would take out every satellite within thousands of kilometers.”
    …and i said about “pesky details” sarcastically. -.- These things are really little, pesky details for you? Good grief, you all are crazy for real.

    “Wrong. As long as it gains most of the speed low in the atmosphere ( say < 60 km ),
    I assume that nearby land will be in ever pristine condition. Not to mention wonderful rates of cancer in neighbourhood. Pesky details, I know.

    "no damage to the orbit what so ever."
    And you will loss most of gain of this concept (in comparison with exploding all the way up). Gravity loss is harsh mistress. Reality is even harsher.

    "move it thousands of kilometers away from any satellite before firing it"
    Someone would wonder about one little thing: how you move milions of tons away "thousand kilometers" without using the only and one thing (continous nuclear explosions) that supposedly can do it? If you can do it in other way, you lost probably only one thing that is Orion worth for – raw power. You know, being up is half way to everywhere.
    However, I admit that using this scheme in deep space is at least much less crazy than launching this… thing… from ground on atomic fire.

    "So no, it’s not all about adolescent fascination with oversized firecrackers."
    Unfortunately – as I see it – yes, it is.

  68. T_U_T

    Sit inside your fantasy as your wish. I prefer to stay with things that actually get to build, fly and do not screw utterly environment around just casually by the way. Yes, they cannot do fantastic things. Your Orion cannot do these too – because it does not – nor will ever – exist.

    Yeah. The power of circular reasoning. It is a retarded insanity because we never will build it, and we never will, because it is a retarded insanity…

  69. Al Viro

    @T_U_T[31]: let’s see. 11.2km/s reached at 65km. Care to give
    slightly more detailed flight profile and explain how would you
    avoid acceleration in excess of survivable limits?

  70. T_U_T

    “To the stars” is an exaggeration (a theoretical best would get a ship to Alpha Centauri in around 40-50 years)

    50 year cruise time is fine for me.

    and upper-atmospheric detonations do not sit well with this Bear.

    Why ? Fits of radiophobia ?

  71. T_U_T

    let’s see. 11.2km/s reached at 65km. Care to give
    slightly more detailed flight profile and explain how would you
    avoid acceleration in excess of survivable limits?

    In order to accelerate at reasonable rate, say 100 m/s^2 it would have to climb vertically to 50 km, then turn and start accelerating almost horizontally. It has to make a two minute acceleration sprint, 15 km long vertically but 660 km horizontally. Then it will fly out of the atmosphere at escape velocity. At a safe distance from the magnetosphere, it will start accelerating again.

  72. G Williams

    If you launch an OrionShip from a pole, you have much less to worry about in terms of fallout and EMP effects.

  73. Al Viro

    Oh, _brilliant_. So you propose to turn essentially a disk with
    far supersonic velocity normal to it by about 90 degrees. Fast.
    And accurately enough for the subsequent burn. With no workable
    abort variants. With considerable mass and radius, so it’ll have
    one hell of rotational inertia, BTW. I’m thucking frilled, esp.
    by the failure modes of that lovely plan…

  74. Al Viro

    Er, wait… You mean getting at 50 km with practically zero velocity?
    Then turning the damn thing more or less on its edge and starting a
    nearly horizontal burn? And somehow managing to keep it stable in
    process? I can see how to do that with cartoon physics, but the real-world
    one is just a bit different…

  75. Chief

    Er. Tonnage alone will kill the idea of an earth launch of an Orion Ship. We really need to think about a linear accelerator to boost to low earth orbits.

  76. T_U_T

    I can see how to do that with cartoon physics, but the real-world
    one is just a bit different…

    What a nice straw man of your own making you have just knocked down.

    Of course in the real world the turn would be spread across several explosions. There would be almost no issues with stability. one million ton of inertia does tend to be very stable, and each nuke has enough power to correct what ever course deviation the previous explosion left the ship with. Even one or two consequent duds would not cause a failure because the inertia of the ship is so high. And there can be a lot of redundancy built in, in a ship of such gargantuan size.

  77. Brian Too

    My impression is that these tests were 99% military and maybe 1% science driven. It was all about calculating the potential lethality and destructiveness of the weapons.

    Thought experiment. Take the military out of the equation so it’s just scientists doing science. How many explosions would have been set off? Maybe a couple.

    Now do the opposite. It’s all military with no scientific participation or pretensions whatsoever. How many weapons tests get performed then (just pretend that the tests could be done without scientists)? All of them.

    There’s a reason Edward Teller was called Dr. Doom, and that reason went far beyond his voice.

  78. John Nouveaux

    “It’s hard to imagine doing something so naive and foolish as detonating a nuke just to see what would happen”

    And Enrico Fermi & Leo Szilard (a couple of relatively “minor” names in physics;-) built the first successful nuclear “pile” (with the first controlled nuclear reaction) under the squash courts at the University of Chicago. In Chicago. USA. A city of some size and note. A city with lots of people. And everything. You know, Chicago.

    Science isn’t immune from The Stupid.

  79. Travis D

    Imagine if we had just outright banned TNT based on how horrible it is a weapon. That would have been pretty shortsighted. We use TNT far more for constructive purposes than for anything else and who knows what we might be able to do with nuclear explosives.

  80. T_U_T

    Science isn’t immune from The Stupid.

    Are you writing from an alternate reality ? One in which CP-1 melted down and destroyed the entire city ? No ? Then I suppose that fermi & co were not that stupid after all.

  81. SteveM

    Did anyone here actually, like, listen to the NPR story? Did everyone miss the part where they (van Allen and co.) thought that the explosion could be used to alter the Van Allen belts and channel the effect of the explosion to some distant location? So that you could have nuclear destruction nowhere near the actual explosion. These were not just scientists “goofing around” to “see what would happen”; these we serious weapon designers.

    As for someone’s earlier question about what made this particular test so special for Krulwich to report on it; I think it was just the one closest to July 4th so he could tie it in to the annual celebration of fireworks.

  82. Captn Tommy

    Gentle people:

    The nuclear ship “Project Orion” “Dedalus” or whichever is entirly possible. The ship was/is to be built in earth orbit, propelled away from the earth by standard tech, rocket or electric propulsion, and then the nuclear Pulse propulsion would be fired.

    The nukes used I believe are in the 5-6 Kiloton range. Hell its 2010, we should be able to use all the warheads on the launchers we put into orbit in the cold war.

    Captn Tommy

  83. Space Cake : Prot

    I believe the boffins at your n.a.s.a where indeed trying to blow a hole in the van allen belts in an attempt to clear a safe route through them for a manned trip into deep space { so called moon landings }.

  84. ceseme

    I see this is an old post, but I can’t help but comment on how incredibly idiotically scientists behave. I had never heard of Starfish Prime before now, but I do remember the many nuclear tests they did, and as a child innocently thought nothing of it. (To think that children trust the adults in their lives implicitly.) Toying with nuclear genocide was not exciting enough to appease these “monkey-brained” scientists; they have now turned their attention to creating “miniature” black holes. Guess all that radiation impaired their sensibilities. It could turn out to be good news: if they get sucked into their work, maybe we’ll be done with this foolishness for a while.

  85. Ed Graham

    I was on a troop ship directly under the blast. It was taking us to Hawaii then to the mainland from Korea. All shipping was cleared out of the area, but we just went through it. When the blast happened, we were all on deck to watch. It was spectacular. The entire sky lit up, it went from a dark evening to brighter than day. The light followed the magnetic field in a bright white line then slowly filled the entire sky from horizon to horizon. It stayed that way for about ten minutes then slowly faded in about twenty minutes. Naturally, there was no sound. At first the blast seemed to boil (bubble) the sky then it was just bright light that slowly faded into pastel shades. I was thrilled to see this once in a lifetime sight, and terrified that something went wrong and we had maybe created another radiation belt around the world.

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