Blastr: So, you wanna blow up the Earth?

By Phil Plait | September 13, 2011 1:00 pm

Blowing up a planet is hard. Really, really, really, really hard. In fact, if you had one "really" in that sentence for every Joule of energy it would take to make the Earth all explodey, you’d need more than 2 x 1032 of them. That’s a lot of "really"s.

I actually calculated that number using some basic physics and math, and then decided to write an entire article around it, which is now up on Blastr. It doesn’t matter how big a supervillain you are, blowing up a planet is next to impossible, despite the non-existence of Ceti Alpha 6.

There are ways of tearing a planet apart, actually, but I didn’t want the article to go on too long, and I figure exploding one versus ripping it apart are different things. Maybe I’ll do a follow up article. And really, why blow it up at all? If you want to kill everything on it, just set up a massive ad campaign for hair spray, sell the inhabitants a billion cans of the stuff, and then sit back and wait for them to destroy their ozone layer. Done and done.

[P.S. Today marks the 12th anniversary, ironically, of the Moon being blasted out of Earth orbit. Happy Breakaway day!]


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Comments (51)

  1. And really, why blow it up at all?

    Because it obstructs your view of Venus, duh. Now, where’s that Illudium-Q36 Explosive Space Modulator?

  2. DigitalAxis

    Well, blowing up planets is certainly easier to telegraph as unimaginable devastation, compared to just bombing the heck out of a place.

    Then again, as one Blastr commenter pointed out, Babylon 5 DID manage to effectively use bombardment when they destroyed the Narn homeworld. Babylon 5 managed to pull off all kinds of difficult things…

  3. CraterJoe

    I second Todd W. on this. Now where did my space modulator go? I was expecting a ka-boom!

  4. whb03

    “That Death Star must have had some very large batteries in those reactor rooms.”

    If I remember correctly, according to the book Death Star, the Death Star reactor sourced from a “virtually infinite” energy pool. I don’t have the quote handy, but either way, problem solved, done and done!

  5. Chris

    I remember thinking about that back when Species 8472 was blowing up planets. Definitely cool but I always wondered how they could get so much energy into a little space ship. Then of course there was Fluidic Space which should have collapsed under its own gravity, but it’s a different universe, so maybe it’s made of different particles. Anyway, nice article.

  6. andy

    And then the Singularity nutters talk so casually about disassembling an entire planetary system to build a Dyson sphere or some other such ludicrous mega-engineering project.

  7. Jim Johnson

    From “The Tick”:

    Interviewer: Well, can you… blow up the world?
    Tick: Egad. I hope not. That’s where I keep all my stuff.

  8. Dan

    @Todd (Comment #1)

    Or maybe someone needs to build a hyperspace express route straight through your orbit.

  9. BJN

    “Blowing up the planet” was (and still is) a bit of hyperbole for destroying civilization and making the planet uninhabitable. We’ve had the capability to do that for over half a century and we still have the capability. We don’t have to wait for a Death Star to put an end ourselves and most of the life on Earth.

  10. Michael

    “And really, why blow it up at all?”

    To make way for the hyperspace bypass. Obviously.

  11. So then… we *should* panic? Now I’m confused.

  12. Zach

    @DigitalAxis: they used a device (I think they called them ‘Mass accelerators’) to push asteroids out of orbit on an impact trajectory with the Narn homeworld, they did effectively render it uninhabitable but they were far from successful in fully eliminating the planet or the species. This is a kinetic type of bombardment which humans have made use of since the first rock was thrown some tens of thousands of years ago, and most recently used in the LCROSS mission. What really struck me about its use in Babylon 5 was that the only seriously sophisticated part of their plan was in the device that they used to initiate the bombardment, a mining tool. It is an elegant piece of writing, future techniques for executing an ancient tactic. Also The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has a great example of the power that comes from higher ground.

    Also, a question for Phil: how much force or change in mass would it take to destabilize the Earths orbit and either sling it into the sun or out of the Solar system?

  13. Nicias

    Things of interest has worked up the feasibility of various ways of destroying the earth: http://qntm.org/destroy

  14. Magrathea

    So I will ask the same question that member of the US congress asked jokingly back then…

    “so, where’s the moonbase?”

  15. Kam

    I always figured that if anyone wanted to end all life on Earth, the thing to do would be stand on street corners distributing free cartons of cigarettes.

  16. Robert

    http://qntm.org/destroy

    Many proposed ways of blowing up the earth.

  17. What if you used the planet’s own material as a weapon against it?

    The Earth’s mantle is made up primarily of silicates, right? That’s silicon and oxygen. Well … if silicon and oxygen undergo nuclear fusion with each other, the reaction is mildly exothermic. I did a calculation of how much silicon and oxygen you’d need to fuse together, in order to release enough energy to impart escape velocity to every piece of the Earth, and it comes out to less than 0.0002% of the Earth’s mass.

    Granted, it’s damn hard to GET silicon and oxygen to undergo nuclear fusion — about the only known process that can produce the pressures and temperatures needed is a supernova, and if you could turn the Earth into a supernova you’d ALREADY have the means of blowing it up without NEEDING silicon-oxygen fusion. But maybe Pons and Fleischman have a secret way of doing it with a catalytic converter and a garden hose.

  18. artbot

    Speaking of which, one of George’s changes in the new Blu-Ray Star Wars DVDs is that Alderaan now shoots first:
    http://i.imgur.com/xWweh.gif

  19. Nentuaby

    Hell, even from the “visual spectacle” angle blowing up the planet is overplayed. It would be pretty gorram cool visual image in a sci-fi film to hit a planet with enough force to liquify the crust and watch the shockwaves ripple across its liquid surface while the ejecta slowly cools into a ring…

  20. Kirk Aplin

    How do you suppose the Vogon Destructor Fleet managed it?

  21. Jess Tauber

    Re 13: Forget Si-O fusion. Use tabletop nuclear (LENR, cold fusion) of lighter metals, from Li all the way up to whatever is in the core. That should be enough to do the trick. IF you can create a self-sustaining reaction all the way through the core and crust. On the bright side (is there any OTHER side here…?) our energy needs are fulfilled for the foreseeable future. Republicans should like this, since only a higher power can destroy the earth, so we should be safe, at least until the Iranians attack and start Armageddon.

  22. Cairnos

    Reminds me of one question I’ve always wanted to know the answer to. Darth Vader goes on about how the ability to destroy a planet is nothing compared to the power of the Force. Why did no one ask how many planets he’d blown up using the force recently, huh?

  23. Bryan D

    I’m reminded of that Futurama episode wherein blowing up Planets is just a hohum blue collar day job.

  24. Jess Tauber

    IIRC the Force might be mighty powerful IN TOTO, but the amounts available to Jedi or Sith individually doesn’t seem to be that great. You can see things a second or two before they happen, you can lift a starfighter or throw Windu out the window, and influence weak minds- but you can’t save your loved ones from death. Looks like even Superman has more juice in certain instances here.

    One book I read had aliens deliver giant ropes of neutronium and antineutronium into the earth, which sink to the core and annihilate. After that it’s hurry up and wait for the end. The aliens themselves made entire planets out of antimatter and ‘fake matter’, so I guess blowing up earth wasn’t that big a deal.

  25. Add gravitational binding energy plus a soupçon more to exceed escape velocity. The product would be (pseudoadiabatic) cold dark mater. Matter-antimatter higgledy piggledyness is vastly overrated. Lepton annihalation to photons proceeds as advertised. Hadron annihalation loses ~50% of its energy as neutrinos. Double your antimatter order. Pricey.

    Pumping water into the core and hoping for a BLEVE is not reasonable. Blowing down the Earth into it Schwarzschild radius could work given a Fermi de-exclusionator. A more reasonable route is for God to go all Sodom on Earth. It is certainly worth a try, either outcome.

  26. Jamey

    h t t p : // qntm. org / destroy

    Get rid of spaces, and see the whole analysis.

  27. I wonder how much energy it would take to power a “Death Star” ray that blanketed the surface of the planet in enough radiation to kill higher life forms. (Say, mice on up.) That would probably be more power than anything we’ve got access to, but would likely be much less than blowing the planet up.

  28. Bill L.

    Hey Phil, did you catch Martin Landau at DragonCon? He was a very interesting speaker.

  29. Messier Tidy Upper

    .. blowing up a planet is next to impossible, despite the non-existence of Ceti Alpha 6.

    No wonder “Ceti Alpha” is non-existent – it’s a complete Bayer-name :

    http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/starname.html

    research FAIL and peice of bad astronomy. ;-)

    In the Bayer designation naming system which they’re obviously trying to evoke, the Greek letter always goes first then the constellation form so you don’t have Ceti Alpha – there’s no letter “Ceti” in Greek and no constellation ‘Alpha’* – but instead Alpha Ceti.

    Alpha Ceti is actually a real star being the red giant star Menkar :

    http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/menkar.html

    &

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

    which is an irregular variable and has evolved far along its stellar life’s pathway which probably makes it unsuitable for hosting habitable planets. The climate would likely be pretty unstable with wild swings of temperature as the star’s light pulsed brighter and fainter, any planet’s originally in the Habitable Zone would’ve been engulfed by the red giants surface ballooning outwards and the one’s in the new HZ woulnd’t have had time for life to evolve – plus could be having their atmospheres eroded away by the fierce stellar winds as the star loses mass this way.

    I guess with terraforming and sufficent imagination you could almost find a way around that and make for an interesting fictional Menkarean planet-six but it does kinda bug me that the Trek writers got the basic astronomy so wrong when really they could’ve done a few minutes research and had something much more plausible. Like at least getting the star name right! Grrr. :-(

    ———————

    * Theoretically I suppose you could have new constellations perhaps as seen from alien skies – & with enough time from proper motion or the long term movement of stars across the sky. Imagining a new formalised pattern of stars shaped like the Greek letter Alpha is something that could work – and if we stick with Bayer names extending them to the new “Alpha” constellation you’d then have the designations Alpha Alpha, Beta Alpha, Gamma Alpha and so on down to Omega Alpha. But since the greek alphabet doesn’t incl. “Ceti” as a letter even this won’t make “Ceti Alpha” work! ;-)

  30. I would genuinely like to know how to calculate the math of tearing a planet apart. I remember reading somewhere about roche limits, (in regards to rendering a moon a ring) which I’d love to know more about. Anyone care to point me in the right direction?

  31. Robin

    @ Kirk Aplin (#15):

    Christ! Haven’t you heard their poetry?

  32. Dr. Morbius
  33. andy

    Also, a question for Phil: how much force or change in mass would it take to destabilize the Earths orbit and either sling it into the sun or out of the Solar system?

    If you’re prepared to wait for long periods of time, you don’t really have to do anything. There’s a non-zero probability that the inner solar system will destabilise before the Sun becomes a red giant. The likely mechanism for this appears to be that Mercury gets caught in a secular resonance with Jupiter, increasing its orbital eccentricity. This continues until its orbit crosses that of Venus… then everything goes to hell. Even if that doesn’t happen, the expanding red giant Sun will probably end up engulfing the Earth.

  34. Captn Tommy

    WARNING WARNING SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT, WILL ROBINSON !!!!

    In the Novel “Forge of God” by Greg Bear the earth is destroyed by Neutronium and Anti- neutronium. I have’nt ruined the story it is the journey that is a startling and wonderful read… I read it years ago and it still haunts me. It is scary, Like the plague section of The Stand…. Too Believable.

    Best Doomsday Book ever!

    Enjoy, really
    Captn Tommy

  35. chris j.

    if you think about it, in serious scifi (i.e., not MIB or HGTTG), the reason for blowing up planets is basically to be able to say you can blow up planets. the death star and the vorlon planetkiller are excellent examples of this. both are enormous, single function machines with the ability to generate vast, vast amounts of energy and channel that energy through a weapon to a planet. the death star did so explicitly to create fear. the vorlons did it as a last ditch effort to win the ideological war with the shadows (whose planetkiller was far more efficient, merely rendering the surface uninhabitable).

  36. Charly

    @CraterJoe – not just a “ka-boom” but an “earth-shattering ka-boom.”

  37. mike burkhart

    One of the early theorys for the Asteroid belt was that the asteroids where the remains of a planet (some Astronomer named it Phaton others called it planet #5) that exploded . Curent theory is the asteroids are left overs from the formation of the Solar System that never formed into a planet. I liked Space 1999 as a kid , but if I had a penny for every time some one asked me if you could blow the Moon out of orbit I’d be a millonare. Besides the real issue in Space 1999 is weather we should dump nucelar waste on the Moon not because it would explode (it can’t) but should we be littering Space and using space and other planets and moons for a garbage dump.Giveing Phils views on the enviorment I think he’d be opposed like I am.

  38. Jess Tauber wrote:

    “Forget Si-O fusion. Use tabletop nuclear (LENR, cold fusion) of lighter metals, from Li all the way up to whatever is in the core. That should be enough to do the trick. IF you can create a self-sustaining reaction all the way through the core and crust.”

    Fusing the material in the core is a BAD BAD BAD BAD idea, if your intent is to produce energy.

    Earth’s core is made mostly of iron, with some nickel. If you fuse iron or nickel with ANYTHING, the reaction will always be ENDOTHERMIC. It will consume more energy than it produces. (This, in fact, is why the core of a supermassive post-main-sequence star collapses into a neutron star once it progresses to the Iron stage. The reaction absorbs heat rather than releasing it, which almost instantly removes all the radiation pressure that used to be supporting the core against collapsing under its own weight.)

  39. mike burkhart

    One more thing , The Death Star is an insterment of oppresion. Palpatines way of ruleing the Galaxy is “rule thro fear” so the Death Star is ment to scare everyone into submission. But the fact that there is a Rebel Allince shows it is not working,there are many in the Star Wars Galaxy that are brave enoffe to fight the Empire.

  40. Keith Bowden

    “That’s the last straw! Now I use my secret weapon!”

  41. MT-LA

    It’s comment threads like this that make me wish The Overmind would include “Like” buttons for the comments.
    Earth-shattering kaboom indeed! Marvin…we miss you and your spitoon

  42. Dan Bee

    Wait a second, there’s an exponent sign missing in that figure. 2 x 1032 is a little over 2 kJ, which you could get out of about one cornflake. 2 x 10^32 seems more on the order of 6-mile-wide asteroids.

    Edit: It seems that Pulse for the iPhone doesn’t support superscripts. My apologies. Still an awesome article.

  43. David in England

    A single drop of Red Matter did the trick for “a particularly troubled Romulan” !

    And then, of course, there’s the Lexx…

  44. Messier Tidy Upper

    @36. Captn Tommy :

    WARNING WARNING SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT, WILL ROBINSON !!!!
    In the Novel
    “Forge of God” by Greg Bear the earth is destroyed by Neutronium and Anti- neutronium. I have’nt ruined the story it is the journey that is a startling and wonderful read… I read it years ago and it still haunts me. It is scary, Like the plague section of The Stand…. Too Believable. Best Doomsday Book ever! Enjoy, really – Captn Tommy.

    Indeed. I second that. :-)

    Have you read Bear’s sequel to that ‘Anvil of Stars’ :

    http://images.google.com/search?tbm=isch&hl=en&source=hp&biw=1600&bih=701&q=Anvil+of+Stars&btnG=Search+Images&gbv=2&oq=Anvil+of+Stars&aq=f&aqi=g1&aql=&gs_sm=s&gs_upl=1668l5835l0l7546l16l15l1l2l2l0l360l2166l2-4.3l7l0

    as well by any chance? That’s one of my personal all-time fave SF novels – and I read a *lot* of SF! ;-)

    (That novel has an entry on wikipedia but beware that’s full of SPOILERS hence the Google search link instead.)

    Some of the best thought out aliens I’ve ever read are in that ‘Anvil of Stars’ epic and some great astronomy, ideas and characters too. :-)

  45. icemith

    Where’s Ford Prefect when you need him?

  46. Floyd

    Ford Prefect is at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, with Marvin the Paranoid Android. He’ll be there all next week, folks with Hotblack Desiato.

  47. Joseph G

    Regarding antimatter annihilation, one thing I’ve always noticed is that it’s always visualized as “lump of matter” + “equal lump of antimatter” = total energy conversion.
    In reality, wouldn’t any substantial (ie, not microscopic) amount of antimatter reacting with anti-matter cause such a huge release of energy (in gamma rays, if I’m not mistaken) that the two lumps (or clouds or globules or whatever) would be blasted away from each other (and likely turned into a rapidy-spreading hot plasma) before the vast majority of the material could annihilate? Radiation pressure alone could do the seperation.
    I suppose that might work out with a smallish (small in this case being a gram or so of antimatter, still comparable to an enormous hydrogen bomb) weapon detonated inside a planet’s atmosphere, where the antimatter has nowhere to “escape” to, reacting with air until it’s all been annihilated), but in a space war (ie, “fire photon torpedoes!”), wouldn’t most of your antimatter never make it to the target?

  48. Nigel Depledge

    Kirk Aplin (22) said:

    How do you suppose the Vogon Destructor Fleet managed it?

    By energising their Demolition Beams, of course!

    (And wasn’t it a Vogon Constructor Fleet?)

  49. Matt B.

    For #32, flaewedprefect: If I remember correctly. the amount of energy needed to “explode” a uniformly dense sphere is (3/5)*(GM^2/R).

    Yes, I know I’m terribly late to the conversation.

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