Nuclear Weapons in Space: Risks and Realities of Anti-Satellite Tech

In mid-February, the ABC TV channel reported, citing sources, that the U.S. Congress was told at a secret briefing that Russia was implementing a plan to “deploy nuclear weapons in space” to deal with enemy satellites. In response to this news, Russia immediately stated that it currently has no intention to deploy nuclear weapons in space. The United States is concocting “fake news” to push congressional Republicans to approve the continued provision of military aid to Kiev.

As the name suggests, “space nuclear explosion anti-satellite” is to destroy spacecraft such as satellites by detonating nuclear warheads in space. High-altitude nuclear explosions are bounded by the Kármán line, which is 100 kilometers away from the earth. The distance between 30 and 100 kilometers is called a “sky nuclear test”, and the distance above 100 kilometers is called a “space nuclear test.” So far, only the United States and the Soviet Union have detonated nuclear weapons at high altitudes and in space. From 1958 to 1962, a total of 21 high-altitude nuclear explosions were conducted, eight of which were space nuclear tests.

The main factors causing destruction and damage caused by nuclear explosions are: shock wave, optical radiation, early nuclear radiation, radioactive contamination and electromagnetic pulse. Their share in the total energy of a nuclear explosion depends on the type of nuclear weapon and the environmental conditions at the detonation point. Usually when an atomic bomb explodes in the air, the shock wave accounts for about 50% of the total energy, optical radiation accounts for about 35%, early nuclear radiation accounts for about 5%, and radioactive pollution accounts for about 10%.

Since the density of the atmosphere basically decreases exponentially with height, at an altitude of 30 kilometers, the density of the atmosphere is one percent that of the ground, while at an altitude of 80 kilometers, it is only one hundred thousandth that of the ground. As altitude increases, the attenuating effect of the atmosphere on early X-ray nuclear radiation weakens. Therefore, optical radiation and early nuclear radiation composed of X-rays and ultraviolet radiation become important damaging factors in high-altitude nuclear explosions. The energy share of high-altitude nuclear explosion optical radiation in the total energy of the nuclear explosion gradually increases with the explosion height, and the energy share of the shock wave decreases with the increase of the explosion height.

When the explosion height is greater than 80 kilometers, 70% to 80% of the energy is released in the form of X-rays and accumulates in the atmosphere 70 to 80 kilometers below the center of the explosion, forming a cake-shaped luminous area, also known as a cake-shaped fireball; Gamma ray energy accumulates in the atmosphere 20 to 30 kilometers above the ground, forming a strong electromagnetic pulse. It is transferred by the geomagnetic field to excite a strong high-altitude nuclear electromagnetic pulse, and the range of action is significantly increased.

The “Fishbowl” operation conducted by the United States on July 9, 1962 gave the whole world an intuitive understanding of the consequences of high-altitude nuclear explosions. At that time, the United States launched the Thor launch vehicle from Johnston Atoll, about 1,450 kilometers away from Hawaii. The rocket flew to an altitude of more than 1,100 kilometers and then fell, detonating the 1.45-megaton nuclear warhead “Starfish” 400 kilometers above the ground. Number One”. The explosion did not produce a mushroom cloud or shock wave, but a radiation bubble that expanded roughly equally in all directions appeared. High-energy gamma rays exploded in all directions. Lightweight electrons flowed rapidly along the earth’s magnetic field lines and fell into the upper atmosphere. At an altitude of about 50 to 100 kilometers, they are blocked by atoms and molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere. These atoms and molecules absorb the energy of the electrons and react by emitting light, thus forming huge artificial auroras. At the same time, the nuclear explosion caused these highly charged electrons to experience astonishing acceleration, producing a brief but extremely powerful magnetic field that extended for more than 1,000 kilometers, known as EMP (electromagnetic pulse), causing the entire Hawaiian power system to be paralyzed, streetlights, telephones, etc. , navigation and radar systems all failed for a time. Many of the electrons produced by the nuclear explosion lingered in space for months, becoming trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field, creating a man-made radiation belt that destroyed six satellites and caused malfunctions in others.

In addition, there is nuclear explosion anti-missile technology. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union developed anti-missile interception systems that used nuclear warheads to destroy electronic components on incoming missiles through high-altitude nuclear explosions. In the 1970s, the United States developed the “Guardian” missile defense system, which mainly consisted of the “Spartan” high-altitude interceptor and the “Sprint” low-altitude interceptor. Both were equipped with nuclear warheads. The former had an interception altitude of 550 kilometers. meters, with a maximum range of 750 kilometers. The latter has an interception altitude of 32 to 48 kilometers and a maximum range of 56 kilometers. It is mainly deployed around the “Minuteman” intercontinental missile base. The Soviet Union developed the “A-135” defense system to protect Moscow and its surrounding areas from enemy intercontinental ballistic missile attacks. As the only strategic anti-ballistic missile system in the world, the “A-135” is equipped with two missile systems, one is a hypersonic intra-atmospheric missile interceptor code-named “53T6”, and the other is code-named “51T6” The warheads of both missiles are “AA-84” tactical thermonuclear warheads with a yield of about 10,000 tons. They do not require very precise guidance to destroy incoming warheads. They are still operating around Moscow. However, there is also news that the “53T6” may use traditional warheads instead, while the “51T6” has been retired.

There are many similarities between space nuclear explosion anti-missile and anti-satellite, and compared with the former, the latter is less difficult because the orbit, altitude and overhead time of the satellite are basically fixed and easier to calculate. Therefore, today’s major powers There are not many technical obstacles to developing space nuclear explosion anti-satellite weapons. In terms of specific applications, a launch vehicle can be used to send a nuclear warhead into space and then be detonated immediately, or the nuclear warhead can be installed on a spacecraft such as a satellite so that it can be deployed in orbit for a long time and then detonated when needed.

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