in space, no one can hear you nuke

October 28, 2009

Speaking of bombing the Moon with nuclear warheads, there’s a long standing reader request that I’ve waited to fulfill next time there’s a story about weapons of mass destruction in space. If you were to set off a massive nuke on the lunar surface, what would happen? How would the explosion form and radiate? Would it be a real show of force, or would the result be an underwhelming blink-and-you-miss-it flash? And could our planet be affected by the power of the blast? In this post, we’ll answer all your questions about bombing an alien world as well as take a peek under the hood of modern nuclear weapons to understand how they work in space.

nuclear blast in space

Let’s start with how thermonuclear devices actually work. Fusion bombs are multi-stage mechanisms which are made up of a fission core and fuel consisting of deuterium and a type of lithium that produces tritium when bombarded with radiation. Deuterium is a hydrogen atom with a neutron and tritium has two neutrons. When subjected to enormous temperatures and pressures, they combine into helium, releasing a small amount of energy and a stream of neutrons. And this is exactly why there’s a fission bomb in the device. When the high explosives inside it compress its plutonium and uranium core, the blast momentarily provides the pressures and heat necessary to kick start a fusion reaction. The process is very inefficient and only a very small amount of the weapon’s mass is converted to energy. In fact, a quick and dirty back of the envelope calculation of what amount of mass turns to radiation in a 10 megaton blast gives us just 465.5 grams in the following manner…

m = 4.18 × 1016 J / 299,792,4582 m/sec = 4.18 × 1016 / 8.99 × 1016 = 0.4655 kg

The rest is catapulted high into the atmosphere or even space and comes down as the nuclear fallout we all know and very rightfully fear. Predicting the exact yield of a nuclear weapon is a tricky business due to all the variables involved. From the intricate and mostly classified inner workings of the actual devices, to the many impurities even enriched nuclear fuel has, you’ll never know exactly how many megatons you’re going to get until you actually push the button and see the mushroom cloud. And here’s where things get interesting since that symbolic mushroom cloud is caused by the movement of the dust and debris in a dense atmosphere. In fact, you can see clouds like that form in many explosions, the question is how much they rise and how huge they’ll get. The destructive pressure waves and the deafening 200+ dB roar are also the effects of a nuke in an atmosphere and would vary depending on the the density of the air in which the explosion occurred.

But wait a second. The Moon doesn’t really have an atmosphere. Sure, there’s a negligible amount of gasses floating around the surface but for all intents and purposes, the lunar surface is basically a vacuum. So there would be no sound, no pressure wave and no mushroom cloud. There would certainly be a shockwave racing along the lunar surface and through the Moon’s interior, meeting at the antipodal point and possibly causing a small quake there if the blast had enough power. However, without the weight of a dense atmosphere, there would be no resistance to the growth of the nuclear fireball. It would expand in a fraction of a second and give off radiation in the form of heat, light and gamma rays. And to be seen from 238,000 miles away, the device by itself would have to be enormously powerful, even more monstrously potent than the Soviet Tsar Bomba with its estimated 57 megatons. That bomb had a theoretical upper bound of 100 megatons but the design wasn’t pushed to its maximum potential to reduce fallout. In space, where everything is already radioactive, fallout is really not a major concern. In fact, the devices would need to be pushed as far as they can go to show off their destructive potential to an alien audience.

However, because the result would just be a brief flash which would raise a big plume of pulverized dust and rock, detonating even a gigaton weapon on the Moon wouldn’t be much of a show for Earthlings. Sure, some of the debris would be hurled towards us, but the vast majority of it would burn up in the atmosphere or end up in the ocean. There could be a shallow crater on the lunar surface and the blast would uncover some volcanic rocks from the Moon’s ancient past, but that’s about it. If the explosion goes off in the wrong spot, at the wrong time and we’re not straining our binoculars and telescopes on the right place on the Moon, we could very well miss the very brief pinpoint of light. Though we certainly wouldn’t want to send a satellite to observe the event too closely because a burst of X-rays and gamma rays could fry its electronics. As I’ve written before, using a nuke in space would be like shooting off electromagnetic pulses. It would interrupt communication between enemy targets and damage computers that lack protective shielding, but it wouldn’t be nearly as effective as it could be when set off in an atmosphere where its effects would be amplified by the density of the air.

  • beriukay

    Would there be any interesting heat effects on the surface, or would it freeze up pretty fast? What if the nuke went off in a crater that was hypothetically full of ice? Would there be the possibility of a snow storm, or would the extreme heat and lack of gravity just blow everything into space?

  • Greg Fish

    “would there be any interesting heat effects on the surface?”

    That would depend on the bomb’s yield. The fireball might not have enough time to impart its energy onto the surface and generate any heat since it would expand so quickly in a vacuum.

    “what if the nuke went off in a crater that was full of ice?”

    I would think that depends on how the actual bomb goes off. Let’s assume that it’s a big, modified ICBM that essentially crashes into the lunar surface and detonates its payload. The impact itself could kick up a plume of ice, then the explosion would add to this ice plume, possibly without even melting it. So yes, it could very well just blow everything into space and send some of it our way.

  • Jypson

    Great breakdown! Granted the device would generate more radiation than the normal background radiation in space…but I have an inkling that most satellites would be adequately shielded to withstand the extra rads.

  • James Sweet

    I continue to score an epic FAIL in any attempt to visualize what an explosion in a vacuum would look like. (I take it not much like the Death Star?) Would it look roughly the same on a small scale as a large scale? i.e. if somebody took a large vacuum chamber and created a small explosion, would it look roughly the same as a large bomb in space?

    If so, somebody ought to make a video of that. I just can’t visualize it without there be something in my mental picture where I’m like, “No wait, that takes air.”

  • CrawlingChaos

    Would it have enough force to knock the moon out of orbit? Totally screwing us here? If not, how much force would be needed to knock the moon out of orbit?

  • Joseph Bradford

    Would it, perhaps, be possible to send many large megaton bombs into space, detonate on the moon in different areas, and obliterate the moon entirelY? If so, what effect would this have on earth?

  • Greg Fish

    Would it, perhaps, be possible to … obliterate the moon entirely?

    No, not with nuclear weapons. There’s a formula which will tell you how much energy you’ll need to disassemble an object and we can run a few quick numbers to show if obliterating the Moon is even a feasible task.

    The formula itself is 3GM2 / 5R, where G is the Netwonian gravitational constant, M is the mass of the object in question, and R is the object’s radius. Plug in the relevant values and you get…

    [ 3 × 6.67 × 10-11 × (7.36 × 1022 kg)2 ] / (5 × 1,737,000 m) = 1.28 × 1029 J

    If we take a gigaton warhead, we’ll have 4.184 × 1018 J per detonation, which may be quite a bang to most of us, but lets remember that we’re dealing with exponents and each power means than times more than the previous value. So if we divide the total energy it would take to dismantle the Moon by our gigaton warheads, we obtain…

    1.28 × 1029 / 4.184 × 1018 = 2.98 × 1010

    So to take out the Moon, we’d need roughly 29,800,000,000 bombs with 10 times the yield of the most powerful nuclear warhead design we have so far. Considering that we only have around 10,200 nukes in the entire world and they average just under a megaton 350 kilotons, there’s no way we could even dream of doing anything of note on the Moon with modern day nuclear warheads. However, we’d need only a fraction of our arsenal to wipe out all civilization as we know it

  • Joseph Bradford

    Should we be worried about other nuclear weapons countries? Approximately how many lives would be lost if we encountered Global Thermonuclear War? If anyone survived the initial bombing, wouldn’t the huge amount of fallout kill the rest? Would continents sink beneath the waves after time? Would there even be any waves left? Since Earth has a denser atmosphere, would the nukes do more damage and possibly break up the planet?

  • Greg Fish

    …how many lives would be lost if we encountered Global Thermonuclear War?

    About 4 billion or so just from the initial explosions and radioactive exposure and the fallout could kill up to a billion more over the next few months. I would need to do a lot more math to figure out how this would actually break down.

    Would continents sink beneath the waves after time?

    No. That would be impossible. It would take even more energy than you would need to take out the Moon, given by the calculations above. Sinking a tectonic plate simply wouldn’t be possible by anything short of breaking our planet apart.

    …would the nukes do more damage and possibly break up the planet?

    They would do more damage, but they could never break up the planet. You’d simply need to build and simultaneously detonate way too many of them to make this even remotely plausible. We’re talking about quite literally a trillion warheads. We couldn’t make this many nukes even if we wanted. We’d run out of uranium and plutonium at some point during the process.

  • Özgür Güneş

    i don’t think we need billions of bombs in order to do that . It’s true that Lunar doesn’t have atmosphere , but it still has surface and underground with its pressure of moon sand which may have nuclear reaction at certain temperature and depth . And who knows maybe moon sand is radioactive on moon . . ( i know if when they bring to earth it had no radiation but its possible that it has too fast half-life and only radioactive in moon conditions . )

    There is one more solution for science rather than making show , that is to build a base in moon since there is surface and test the nuke in a gas-planet . For example in Jupiter , you have extreme doses of density and pressure to make the nuclear reaction work shiny .

    And what happens in moon has high possibility to effect earth so its better to test on some other planet or other planet’s moon .

  • Joseph Bradford

    Establishing a base on the moon may one day be possible, but would it ever be possible to alter a planet’s atmosphere in order to breathe on it’s surface? If so, how?

  • RobertT

    @Joseph Bradford

    I’ve read a lot about people talking about terraforming Mars. I think that would be a colossal waste. Mars has no significant magnetic field to protect it from the solar wind that would erode any atmosphere we could create. It is my understanding that is why most of it’s original atmosphere is gone now.

  • Matt

    LOL! the pic is from the legendary ending of Halo 3! THAT IS AWESOME!

  • mike l

    In space every action has an adverse reaction right? At what rate does the energy expand from a small nuclear explosion. And could it be focused in a specific direction. I.e. could we use the rapid expansion of energy to propel an object by making a cone shape blast. And though I know the the electromagnetism would affect electronics, it could potentially propel something at great speeds. For example the use of an aerosol can to move something in space isn’t a matter of releasing the air, it is a matter of releasing the positive energy potential within the can to balance with the surrounding atmosphere. So with the massive potential energy from a nuclear blast an object should theoretically accelerate even faster correct?

  • rio

    a 200,000,000,000,000,000 megaton nuke would probley knock the moon out of orbit. UE MILLIONS of nukes on <— this side of the moon…. it would send it hurling to us boom like an astroid hitting as but much bigger then the largest astroid found.