Nuclear Weapons in Space

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Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby MalaysianShrew » Sat Jun 14, 2008 6:08 am UTC

Now, we always fear nukes in space. We being people who watch/read scifi. You have a nuke blowing up the killer asteroid in Armageddon, and that nuke blowing up the entire Earth Fed. space fleet in Gundam 0083. But, do nuclear weapons work in space? The way I understand nuclear weapons, they wouldn't.

While a lot of energy is released from splitting an atom, this isn't enough for a huge explosion. The explosion comes from freed neutrons flying into other atoms in the air(of which there are none in space) and causing a chain reaction.

So, nukes without an atmosphere, firecrackers?

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby 0xDEADBEEF » Sat Jun 14, 2008 7:12 am UTC

Think of a great, big, hydrogen bomb, bigger than all the world's nuclear arsenals, combined.

Now put it right smack in the center of the Solar System.

That's how a nuclear weapon works in outer space. The typical 20-megaton device would just run out of fuel sooner.



And by the way, I would love to see one go off in space (where it wouldn't hurt anyone, even with residual radiation), to move an asteroid, or whatever. Mankind's biggest fireworks show!

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby hideki101 » Sat Jun 14, 2008 7:35 am UTC

MalaysianShrew wrote:The explosion comes from freed neutrons flying into other atoms in the air(of which there are none in space) and causing a chain reaction.

This is where you're wrong. The traditional fission bomb uses two hemispheres of uranium. During a detonation, explosives shove the two hemispheres together. When this happens, the uranium mass reaches critical mass and detonates. The chain reaction takes place within the uranium mass, not the air.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby JayDee » Sat Jun 14, 2008 7:37 am UTC

MalaysianShrew wrote:While a lot of energy is released from splitting an atom, this isn't enough for a huge explosion. The explosion comes from freed neutrons flying into other atoms in the air(of which there are none in space) and causing a chain reaction.
Huh? It's not about other atoms in the air, the neutrons go wild hitting other nuclei within the bomb.

There might be problems with explosions in space, but they'd be common to all explosive devices, I'd have thought, not just nuclear ones.

Edit: Ninja'd. Have a How Stuff Works link.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby The Ethos » Sat Jun 14, 2008 11:28 am UTC

The biggest problem with space nukes would be either being directly in the heat/explosion globe/point, otherwise, anything else would be pretty glancing, no?. Without a pressure wave, residual radiation probably wouldn't be that difficult to screen.

I don't even really see how useful nukes would be. Isn't their primary damage due to shock wave (absent in space) and fallout? (also absent in space)

I don't think nuke debris would make it down to earth. Wouldn't it be just like all the other toxic radioactive space dust crap out there?

So the nuke would work, but IIRC, the blast, thermal, and radiation are the big dangers of a city flattening nuke...most of which is neutered in space.

EMP on the other hand......big deal.

EDIT: I'm glad this is sometihng that nasa gets paid to do.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby pushpork » Sat Jun 14, 2008 12:04 pm UTC

I think the closest we'll see is the starfish prime test that the Americans did 400 Km over the pacific ocean. it knocked out all low orbit satellites and the beta emission spiraled along the magnetic field(you gotta love the Americans :D )
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Robin S » Sat Jun 14, 2008 12:54 pm UTC

Without a pressure wave, residual radiation probably wouldn't be that difficult to screen.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Klotz » Sat Jun 14, 2008 5:43 pm UTC

To screen the residual radiation...

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Robin S » Sat Jun 14, 2008 8:18 pm UTC

Does that not require walls on the order of ten metres thick?
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Mr. Beck » Sat Jun 14, 2008 9:33 pm UTC

I think that in space nukes would only really be good as an EMP weapon.

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby TheStranger » Sat Jun 14, 2008 11:47 pm UTC

The energy does not come from the air at all... the weapon generates all it's own energy which then radiates out from the ignition point.

A lack of air would mean that there was no blast wave... but then the radiation would spread out and expend itself against any object it encountered (such as an asteroid or a ship). The destructive force would probably be greater (if not equal to) that of what occurs in an atmosphere.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby headprogrammingczar » Sat Jun 14, 2008 11:56 pm UTC

Robin S wrote:Does that not require walls on the order of ten metres thick?

Lead is a huge absorber of particles. If you remember learning about the gold experiment, where electrons were launched through gold and about 1% came through the sheet? Radiation is not neutrons when it is outside the bomb. Radiation is alpha particles (2 protons and two neutrons) or beta particles (2 electrons). Both of these are astronomically larger than a single electron, either in terms of physical size or in terms of charge. Lead absorbs the particles rapidly when it is present in any thickness greater than Saran Wrap. Almost no radiation will get through, unless it is gamma radiation, in which case, uh-oh. Lead does protect enough to make the radiation sickness orders of magnitude less...magnitude.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Jun 15, 2008 5:17 am UTC

In point of fact, beta particles are single electrons (or positrons, according to Wikipedia).
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Minerva » Sun Jun 15, 2008 1:31 pm UTC

headprogrammingczar wrote:
Robin S wrote:Does that not require walls on the order of ten metres thick?

Lead is a huge absorber of particles. If you remember learning about the gold experiment, where electrons were launched through gold and about 1% came through the sheet? Radiation is not neutrons when it is outside the bomb. Radiation is alpha particles (2 protons and two neutrons) or beta particles (2 electrons). Both of these are astronomically larger than a single electron, either in terms of physical size or in terms of charge. Lead absorbs the particles rapidly when it is present in any thickness greater than Saran Wrap. Almost no radiation will get through, unless it is gamma radiation, in which case, uh-oh. Lead does protect enough to make the radiation sickness orders of magnitude less...magnitude.


Yes, there are lots of neutrons.

It's a nuclear fission reaction - happening very, very fast - so it's very different to just some radioactive isotope source.

When the bomb detonates, an enormous flux of fast neutrons and prompt gamma radiation is released, momentarily, which accounts for the majority of the ionising radiation dose if you're anywhere near one when it detonates.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Mettra » Sun Jun 15, 2008 9:03 pm UTC

I'm all for sending nuclear weapons into space, but not for the reasons one might imagine.

The Disclosure Project (a group that believes in the existence of extra-terrestrial presence on/around Earth) claims that it would be impossible to send a nuclear weapon into space since all the evidence points towards the aliens not wanting to allow us to militarize space. They actually have some videos on the intertubes with a guy explaining that it was once attempted but the aliens shot it down in mid-flight. They've presented a falsifiable experiment, and I say we do it - they are a rather large and 'official'-looking organization that a lot of people unfortunately buy into.

Resume serious discussion.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby SpitValve » Sun Jun 15, 2008 11:03 pm UTC

A nuclear weapon works by converting some quantity of nuclear fuel into nuclear waste. In the process, a crapload of energy is released.

On earth, much of this energy heats up the surroundings hugely, creating a shockwave/explosion. This explosion throws the nuclear waste all over the place. While there is a lot of radiation that comes out in all sorts of wavelengths in the brief time the reactions are occurring, the radiation poisoning mostly comes from the waste (fallout) that has been spread all over the landscape, because people are exposed to it for a longer period of time.

If a nuclear bomb explodes in space, it'll radiate energy in all directions, and fling nuclear waste in all directions. If a spaceship is nearby, some (hopefully most if you're firing the weapon) of the radiation will hit the ship. If the ship is designed so that e.g. beta radiation doesn't penetrate it, it doesn't matter - by stopping the radiation it's just converted the energy into heat, and heat - pure energy output - is the main way that a nuke does damage. If the ship gets hit with enough heat, it will cause melting, fires, and might even heat bits up so quickly that it'll cause shockwaves and blow the ship to bits. I'm pretty sure that setting off a nuke on the surface of a ship (i.e. hitting it with a missile) will destroy it. Just think about the energy released, and think about the specific heat of spaceship materials.

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby BlackSails » Sun Jun 15, 2008 11:05 pm UTC

In space, there would be no "explosion" because there is no medium to heat up and compress.

I would guess there would be lots of high energy photons and neutrons, maybe enough to melt/dissociate any objects in the vicinity. People would probably die from radiation poisoning if anywhere nearby.

If you designed the bomb right, I suppose you could make it work like a giant conventional bomb, with lots of shards of metal flying about very quickly.

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Mr. Beck » Mon Jun 16, 2008 4:40 am UTC

Radiation poisoning wouldn't be a problem, as ships are designed to block out Cosmic Rays and suchlike.

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Cryopyre » Mon Jun 16, 2008 5:20 am UTC

Actually he's somewhat correct, a lot of the energy wouldstay gamma and x-rays instead of becoming a nuclear ecplosion, and if I find the source that I read this in, I'll edit and cite it.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby om617 » Mon Jun 16, 2008 6:56 am UTC

In order for a nuclear weapon to be useful against orbital targets it must be configured to project shrapnel in the manner of a conventional explosive, and as far as I know nobody has admitted to trying this out. This might have use taking out a cluster of MIRVs and decoys, but the current focus is on intercepting a very small number of warheads, presumably launch by a rogue state or entity. Given the existing capabilities of ABMs, (see LAKE ERIE's successes a few months back) nuclear weapons in space will likely be limited to the type employed against ground targets, either through re-entry or EMP.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby heydonms » Mon Jun 16, 2008 8:08 am UTC

Wouldn't the mass of the bomb itself create some sort of pressure front? Sure it's not much mass, but it has a lot of energy pushing on it.

Also, according to the all knowing wikipedia, upto 50% of the emitted energy is in the form of thermal radiation which would probably mean a far bit of stuff melting.

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Sc4Freak » Mon Jun 16, 2008 10:05 am UTC

But considering the distances in space, nukes would be pretty much useless unless you scored a direct hit onto an enemy ship. A few hundred km's is considered "close" in space; and at that distance even a 100 megaton nuke (in space) would do diddly squat. They simply don't have the blast radius and destructive power as observed on Earth.

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby TheStranger » Mon Jun 16, 2008 11:20 am UTC

Sc4Freak wrote:But considering the distances in space, nukes would be pretty much useless unless you scored a direct hit onto an enemy ship. A few hundred km's is considered "close" in space; and at that distance even a 100 megaton nuke (in space) would do diddly squat. They simply don't have the blast radius and destructive power as observed on Earth.


Its not that their destructive power is less, but rather that the scale has changed. The energy output of a nuke in space would have a greater radius because there would be no atmosphere to absorb the blast. It would propagate outwards like some form of omni-directional energy weapon.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby SpitValve » Mon Jun 16, 2008 11:50 am UTC

Mr. Beck wrote:Radiation poisoning wouldn't be a problem, as ships are designed to block out Cosmic Rays and suchlike.


Which means they absorb the radiation and convert it into heat, meaning that it's more likely to fry the spaceship.

BlackSails wrote:In space, there would be no "explosion" because there is no medium to heat up and compress.


A ship is made up of material. If you heat up a ship enough, bits of it will expand and compress and cause an explosion.

But overall, because of the 1/r^2 rule, a nuke would only be any good if you scored a direct hit, or at least a verry near miss. A nuke is what you'd use if you want to take out, say, a massive battle station, in one shot.

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby nilkemorya » Mon Jun 16, 2008 4:29 pm UTC

SpitValve wrote:On earth, much of this energy heats up the surroundings hugely, creating a shockwave/explosion. This explosion throws the nuclear waste all over the place. While there is a lot of radiation that comes out in all sorts of wavelengths in the brief time the reactions are occurring, the radiation poisoning mostly comes from the waste (fallout) that has been spread all over the landscape, because people are exposed to it for a longer period of time.

You might want to check your numbers on this one. Most of the radiation poisoning happens at the time of the blast. The amount of radioactive material in the typical fusion device isn't really enough to significantly increase radiation levels. I have heard quoted that hiroshimas radiation levels were only 2 or 3 times ambient within 48 hours of the blast. This link gives some pretty good numbers about death rate due to blast and acute exposure vs. long term: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf52.html

For my 2 cents on space explosions though? I suspect that the bomb would have to be quite close to your target, as you don't have any hepful medium causing the blast radius to increase, but the total energy would be sufficient to seriously damage anything it was close enough to.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby om617 » Tue Jun 17, 2008 3:21 am UTC

There are some more serious problems from fallout if it's inhaled or gets into the food chain. Bikini atoll (site of the Castle Bravo test) is still uninhabitable mainly due to the fact that anything you eat will contain radioactive fission products. We developed weapons that could be configured as almost entirely fusion to minimize fallout, but practically these weapons are all deployed to maximize fission yield, because fission yield is more destructive per Megaton. A "fusion-only" bomb (sometimes called a "clean nuke") is not an efficient weapon.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Minerva » Tue Jun 17, 2008 9:09 am UTC

om617 wrote:because fission yield is more destructive per Megaton.


Huh? A megaton of explosive yield is a megaton of explosive yield, irrespective of whether it comes from fission or fusion. A fission bomb is only "more destructive" if you're considering the radioactive fission product contamination as part of the destructiveness.

A "fusion-only" bomb (sometimes called a "clean nuke") is not an efficient weapon.


I'd have to disagree; of course it's an efficient weapon. (debates over the strategic worthiness or intrinsic "goodness" of nuclear explosive weapons aside.) It's just proven impossible to build a fusion-only bomb without a fission trigger.

Conventional fusion bombs (i.e. Teller-Ulam) are quite "efficient", for the amount of destructive power they generate. They really are (Now, I'm no Dr. Strangelove, I'm just saying) technologically sweet - the explosive yield can easily be scaled right up or right down, and only a (relative to the overall explosive yield) tiny amount of expensive, relatively difficult to manufacture highly isotopically pure fissile material is needed for the fission trigger.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Albinochewbacca » Tue Jun 17, 2008 8:15 pm UTC

The main issue with nuclear weapons in space is the EMP that it produces. If anyone seriously detonated a nuke in space, besides blowing up giant rocks, it would be to knock out satellites and such. Or for the purposes of a High Altitude burst. Basically, if you detonated a sufficiently large bomb over a country, say fifty-one hundred miles or so up, then you spread out the EMP radius and fry anything that isn't properly shielded.

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby SpitValve » Wed Jun 18, 2008 2:22 am UTC

The EMP is caused by radiation from the explosion ionising atoms in air. The charged ions and free electrons get pushed by the Earth's magnetic field, creating an oscillating current, which causes the pulse.

In space, you have no air to be ionised, and no strong magnetic field to create a current from ions. So until you somehow modify the nuke to solve these problems, there's no EMP.

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Dream » Wed Jun 18, 2008 8:49 am UTC

SpitValve wrote:The EMP is caused by radiation from the explosion ionising atoms in air. The charged ions and free electrons get pushed by the Earth's magnetic field, creating an oscillating current, which causes the pulse.

In space, you have no air to be ionised, and no strong magnetic field to create a current from ions. So until you somehow modify the nuke to solve these problems, there's no EMP.

The explosion or the radiation? If the latter, would it happen to the fabric or atmosphere of a spacecraft? Could a nearby planet provide the field? And even without the magnetic field, what would the effect of ionising the atmosphere of a spacecraft be?
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby hideki101 » Wed Jun 18, 2008 10:01 am UTC

SpitValve wrote:The EMP is caused by radiation from the explosion ionising atoms in air. The charged ions and free electrons get pushed by the Earth's magnetic field, creating an oscillating current, which causes the pulse.

In space, you have no air to be ionised, and no strong magnetic field to create a current from ions. So until you somehow modify the nuke to solve these problems, there's no EMP.

I think that you can get a perfectly good EMP in outer space. An EMP is an electromagnetic pulse, which overloads electronic systems. Since magnets work in space, I am assuming that so does electricity, and hence you can get a just as good an EMP from a nuke in space as it would be on earth. remember, the sun is basically a giant fusion reactor, releasing thousands to millions of atomic bombs worth of energy, and it seems to produce enough EM radiation that pluto feels it.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby SpitValve » Wed Jun 18, 2008 11:03 am UTC

hideki101 wrote:I think that you can get a perfectly good EMP in outer space. An EMP is an electromagnetic pulse, which overloads electronic systems. Since magnets work in space, I am assuming that so does electricity, and hence you can get a just as good an EMP from a nuke in space as it would be on earth. remember, the sun is basically a giant fusion reactor, releasing thousands to millions of atomic bombs worth of energy, and it seems to produce enough EM radiation that pluto feels it.


Magnetic fields are caused by moving charged particles. Because the sun is hot, it contains a large number of ionised particles. Because the sun is fluid, these particles flow around. This creates a magnetic field. It's nothing directly to do with fusion - the Earth generates its own magnetic field without having thermonuclear explosions in the core.

If you have some way of setting up an EMP in space - say, generating it with some huge magnet system or something - then yes, it should work pretty well - after all, the light we get from the sun is EM radiation flowing through several light minutes of mostly empty space.

But while an EMP is possible in space, it can not be caused by simply exploding a nuclear bomb by itself. Without anything much to ionise, there's just not enough charge particles for anything much to happen.

Dream wrote:The explosion or the radiation? If the latter, would it happen to the fabric or atmosphere of a spacecraft? Could a nearby planet provide the field? And even without the magnetic field, what would the effect of ionising the atmosphere of a spacecraft be?


It's the radiation that does the ionising. I imagine ionising an atmosphere without a magnetic field would just set off a pretty lightning display, like putting metal in a microwave. Of course, if your spaceship is absorbing enough radiation to do that sort of thing, it's probably being heated up quite a lot by lower wavelengths as well. So it may be the case that if you're close enough to get your air ionised and everything fried through lightning, you're close enough to just get melted anyway.

Overall, I'd imagine most spaceships aren't big enough for the EMP effect from a nuke to really work. I mean, look at the scales that EMPs work on:

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Mr. Beck » Wed Jun 18, 2008 4:18 pm UTC

SpitValve wrote:(img from wikipedia).

First off, thanks for explaining how a nuke's EMP works- I thought it was some intrinsic property of the energy released.
Is the scale of that image in Volts per Meter? If so, then no wonder our circuits get toasty.

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby SpitValve » Wed Jun 18, 2008 4:41 pm UTC

Mr. Beck wrote:
SpitValve wrote:(img from wikipedia).

First off, thanks for explaining how a nuke's EMP works- I thought it was some intrinsic property of the energy released.


So did I, until I read wikipedia and the page it cited. This way makes more sense.

Mr. Beck wrote:Is the scale of that image in Volts per Meter? If so, then no wonder our circuits get toasty.


I'd assume so. The lower case "v" makes it confusing.

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Jun 18, 2008 7:24 pm UTC

Minerva wrote:
om617 wrote:because fission yield is more destructive per Megaton.

Huh? A megaton of explosive yield is a megaton of explosive yield

Yes, and I'm pretty sure all of us know that. Which suggests that om617 meant exactly what you thought: the *total* destruction per megaton of explosive yield is greater for fission-only than for fusion bombs. Because of the radioactivity per unit energy being higher.
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby RAPTORATTACK!!! » Mon Jun 23, 2008 12:26 am UTC

I saw a discovery program about giant killer asteroids once. They of course pointed out the possibility of nukes. There are a couple different types of asteroids out there, but I can only remember 2 right now. The first is a big metal chunk, which is way too massive to be greatly affected by a nuke. The other is basically huge pumice pieces, which just absorb the impact.

Could the nuke generate a pseudo emp effect via the photovoltaic effect? IE, the explosion makes electromagnetic radiation on the right frequency to induce conduction in the materials of nearby ships?

If nothing else, a nuke would make a damn good flare. However wmds were outlawed in space. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_weapons#Orbital_weaponry
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Heisenberg » Mon Jun 23, 2008 4:01 pm UTC

RAPTORATTACK!!! wrote:However wmds were outlawed in space.


According to a treaty we signed with a now-defunct nation. Since our current administration seems to disregard treaties with our allies, there's really not much (legally) in the way of weaponizing space. In fact, both the US and China recently shot down satellites, breaking if not that treaty, another we had with the USSR. China did it to show they could, and the US did it to show that we could too for safety concerns. The USSR has not yet filed suit against us for breaking the treaty.

On-topic, the massive amounts of energy released from a nuclear weapon would, in the absence of a mass medium, radiate outward from the source. So the damage would be based on the area of the target and proximity to the bomb. I would hazard a guess that the area of the target divided by the area of the sphere of radius (distance from bomb to target) would be the ratio describing the percentage of energy absorbed by the target. In a spherical system, the radius is important, just look at Pluto and Mercury.

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RAPTORATTACK!!!
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby RAPTORATTACK!!! » Mon Jun 23, 2008 11:26 pm UTC

According to a treaty we signed with a now-defunct nation.

Yeah, fair enough.
Since our current administration

Not for long!
seems to disregard treaties with our allies, there's really not much (legally) in the way of weaponizing space. In fact, both the US and China recently shot down satellites, breaking if not that treaty, another we had with the USSR. China did it to show they could, and the US did it to show that we could too for safety concerns. The USSR has not yet filed suit against us for breaking the treaty.

UN... sigh.

About it being a flare, what else would a nuke effect? What radiation is given off by a nuke, and how much? I space i doubt it would be effective anyway though. Curse star wars/trek for giving me exciting but untrue ideas about space! :evil:
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Vieto
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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Vieto » Mon Jun 23, 2008 11:42 pm UTC

Well, the electromagnetic pulse would take out any satellite/space station in the vicinity, so you can see the chaos it could potentially cause.

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Re: Nuclear Weapons in Space

Postby Charlie! » Tue Jun 24, 2008 12:49 am UTC

Yeah, that starfish prime thang kicked out a big EMP, and it was essentially in space. I imagine nuclear bombs can still do that in a relative lack of air by exciting their own atoms, along with emitting the radiation from fission.
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