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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atomic Spaceship

Article #219 • Written by Anthony Kendall

The year was 1957. The power of the atom had been unleashed upon the world. Technology--along with just about everything else--was booming. Safe, plentiful nuclear energy promised to be too cheap to meter, and radioactive waste seemed only a minor concern. It was an age of optimism and naiveté; a time of action without consequences.

Though man was the master of the Earth, only once had he managed to explore beyond the confines of the atmosphere, in the form of a beachball-sized spacecraft called Sputnik. Werner von Braun's rocket men had drawn up plans for spacecraft that would launch humans into orbit, but even then it was clear that inefficient chemical rockets would allow only a few to enter space; the rest of mankind would be mere spectators. Fresh from their success with the atomic bomb, a small team of Manhattan Project physicists gathered to try and change all that. Working in secret within the brand new Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, now called DARPA), they designed and tested an enormously ambitious nuclear spaceship concept that would have made everything the Soviets and NASA were doing seem like hobby rockets in comparison. The codename was Project Orion.

Project Orion was intended to harness nuclear energy in its rawest form: by detonating a series of nuclear bombs in rapid succession to propel enormous spaceships from the Earth into the heavens. The largest of the Orions was to be seven million tons--more than 7,000 times more massive than the Space Shuttle-- and powerful enough to launch a small city. Provided sufficient numbers of bombs, an Orion spaceship theoretically could have reached 1/10th the speed of light, enabling interstellar travel. The motto of Project Orion was "Mars in 1965, Saturn in 1970."

When General Atomics (GA) pitched the idea behind Project Orion to ARPA in 1958, the concept of a nuclear-propelled spaceship was nothing new. Pulp science-fiction invoked a vague "atomic drive" as early as the mid-1930s. Yet until the Manhattan Project, atomic energy was the stuff of the future. That all changed in late August 1945 when the United States opened the nuclear Pandora's box, and the entire world stood aghast. As the dust was still settling over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists and engineers almost immediately began working to harness nuclear energy for non-destructive purposes. Atoms for Peace exported civilian nuclear reactors across the world, and few companies stood to gain as much from increased use of nuclear technology as GA. The California-based company positioned itself as one of the gatekeepers of the Atomic Age, and in the process they snapped up many of the brilliant Manhattan Project minds.

Two of those men--physicists Stanislaw Ulam and Freeman Dyson--came to GA with an Earth-shaking idea. Intoxicated by the heady aroma of a new Age, GA hired Ulam and Dyson to study their idea for the nuclear spaceship. On its face, the very idea of nuclear explosions being harnessed for useful purposes seemed ridiculous. Many GA employees had seen the awesome specter of mushroom clouds first-hand, and the entire world had witnessed the destruction wreaked upon Japan. But Ulam and Dyson reasoned that properly shaped nuclear explosions could yield most of their energy to the propulsion of a spacecraft while leaving the ship and its occupants intact.

The fundamental design of a Project Orion spacecraft consisted of four parts: a payload of nuclear bombs, propellant, a pusher plate, and a spaceship. During launch from the Earth's surface, the nuclear bombs would be rapidly detonated behind the Orion craft at pre-calculated distances. A disk of propellant material attached to each bomb would be vaporized to a plasma by the explosion. This plasma would expand into a cigar shape while being propelled at astounding velocities toward a heavy metal plate at the base of the ship. That pusher plate, attached to enormous hydraulic shock absorbers, would absorb the momentum of the plasma and propel the Orion spaceship forward.

Time-lapse image sequence running from bottom to top of the flight of "Hot Rod"
Time-lapse image sequence running from bottom to top of the flight of "Hot Rod"

Project Orion was fueled by the raw intellectual prowess and unerring faith in technology held by some of the world's most brilliant people. Its budget was tiny compared to that of the defense conglomerate General Dynamics in which it existed. Nevertheless, within a year the Orion team had completed calculations that indicated the project was feasible. In the next few months, a series of scale-model experiments called "putt-putts" were conducted with the high-powered chemical explosive C4. The first few designs were destroyed, but in November 1959 a putt-putt called Hot Rod flew to an altitude of 100 meters. The flight was surprisingly stable, and the craft nearly unscathed, lending strong evidence to the feasibility of the entire project.

A full-size Orion vehicle would have had a mass of 4,000 tons,-- about 40 times that of the Space Shuttle-- and would include a "pusher plate" about 1-meter thick at the center. This solid mass of metal served to reflect the Orion craft away from the nuclear explosions, while at the same time protecting the passengers from the neutron radiation. The enormous shock absorbers between the pusher plate and the crew module would then distribute the 10,000 G's of each nuclear blast to something much more comfortable for Orion's passengers. In fact, an Orion launch would probably be much more comfortable than a conventional chemical rocket because of the sheer mass of the vehicle.

Consider the launch of a hypothetical 4,000 ton Orion spaceship propelled by four-kiloton bombs. The need for protective eye wear would immediately become evident as the enormous ship would become engulfed in a fireball more intensely bright than the surface of the sun. A rapid series of blossoming explosions would push the first expanding ball of plasma skyward, though the ship would be completely invisible against the blinding glare. Within one minute, the chain of blasts would start to become visibly separate as a new flash of light would appear every few thousand feet. This pace would continue, gradually slowing until Orion reached orbit several minutes later. The final flash would then expand into the cap of a hundred-mile-long string of enormous, fiery pearls that would seem to ooze out of the ground into the atmosphere and arch gracefully into space. For observers at a safe distance, the entire launch would be completely silent. But when the pressure wave reached them a few seconds after the Orion completed its launch, the long series of thundering explosions would have sounded like the coming of the Apocalypse.

Perhaps, then, it is small surprise that the launch of the Orion was the greatest technical hurdle to its success. A single Orion launch would have left a trail of fallout across a tremendous swath of the land or sea, the radiation from its bombs would have charged the ionosphere and the Van Allen belts around the Earth, and its series of electromagnetic pulses would have destroyed all electronics within hundreds of miles of the launch site with the larger designs. It became clear to the GA physicists that solving these problems was crucial for the viability of the Project.

While they worked feverishly at overcoming the technical challenges, political forces were moving against the Project. The young NASA had the ear of the President, and parts of the agency fiercely opposed Project Orion. Werner von Braun, the German head of NASA's manned space rocket effort was supportive of the Project and visited GA several times to confer with managers and physicists. Collaborations involving smaller Orions launched atop modified Saturn V vehicles were proposed by both parties. In early 1963, it seemed that NASA might support Orion, but the agency's administration never came around to the idea and Project Orion was soon orphaned.

Rendering of an Orion launch by Rhys Taylor
Rendering of an Orion launch by Rhys Taylor

After years of steadily declining budgets, 1965 brought the end of Project Orion. A powerful quartet of forces had aligned against it including the Defense Department, NASA, supporters of Nuclear Test Ban and Outer Space treaties, and much of the scientific establishment. While opposition from agencies and individuals may have been the immediate cause of its cancellation, the ultimate cause of its demise was probably the inability for most people to grasp how such a vehicle could ever be made safe. In addition, it was clear that every launch of an Orion would have had a massive impact on the environment.

Though Project Orion is long dead, the idea of a pulse-detonation nuclear spaceship is still alive. To some, the idea of discarding our flimsy aluminum/carbon rockets in favor of such battleship-sized behemoths is deeply romantic. More pragmatic supporters suggest a version of Orion assembled in orbit, thus avoiding most of the environmental dangers. Some have also suggested using massive, unmanned Orion craft mounted to the surface of an asteroid to push it away from collision course with Earth. One thing is certain: Orion and its nuclear-pulsed propulsion is one of the only technologies capable of reaching the speeds necessary for real-live humans to explore the outer solar system. Moreover, if mankind wishes to penetrate the frontier of interstellar space, this mothballed Atomic-Age technology may be our best chance.

Article written by Anthony Kendall, published on 21 September 2006. Anthony is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.

Article design by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows. Suggested independently by Bryan Lowder, Dave Armstrong, and "Jud".
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71 Comments
Floj
Posted 21 September 2006 at 03:37 pm

That's truly amazing! I would love to see such an epic launch in my lifetime. It's unfortunate that the project died. Perhaps someday we will find a form of propulsion that matches the power of a nuclear explosion. I wonder, would a hydrogen bomb disentegrate the metal shielding? I know it's a fusion bomb; it might get too hot. Anyway, I'm going to go eat some pie. It'll be a blast! (eww..)


cspariah
Posted 21 September 2006 at 03:53 pm

So let's say you build one of these in orbit and use a chain of nukes to accelerate it to 1/10th the speed of light. Now you're approaching your target, say Pluto or Eris or whatever. You need to rotate around and fire off a whole bunch of nukes in order to slow down and keep from smacking into it at .1c, right?

I'd love to see us make first contact with an alien race that way. "Hey, what's that ship coming towards us? What's it doing now? OH NO!"


middlenamefrank
Posted 21 September 2006 at 04:11 pm

I have the same reaction to this that I had to the atomic automobile....this might just be possible, let's hope nobody ever tries it for real! One of the biggest problems for conventional space travel is the amount of fuel required; to double range requires many times as much fuel since the extra fuel required adds weight that also has to be lifted out of the gravity well of the earth. It's a chasing game of diminishing returns which pretty much precludes, for instance, a chemical rocket ever taking a manned mission to Mars, let alone out of the solar system. But by the same token, the more energy a fuel provides per gram of weight, the better the payload and/or range of the vehicle is....and there are few if any processes that provide as much energy per gram as a fission reaction (okay a fusion reaction does but let's not even go there!). Unfortunately it's not very directional or consistent but I suppose a good engineering team could resolve those issues.

Just like the atomic automobile, the plausibility of this scheme really frightens me.


davidw987
Posted 21 September 2006 at 04:24 pm

You would need an awful lot of fissionable material to launch one of these suckers.

I expect the breaking mechanics would depend on the gravity of a nearby star.


PresMatt
Posted 21 September 2006 at 04:30 pm

I think it would be easier to slow down than speed up... Perhaps deploy solar sails well in advance and slow VERY slowly... at any rate, getting to another world is one thing... what about getting back? I mean... just how many nukes would have to safely detonate in a row to get off Earth, into space, and to .1c? It would take fewer on the return trip, but still... lets assume it takes 15 bombs to get off earth and into space and 10 more to accelerate to .1c... then assuming we use them to slow down we'd need 10-15 to slow down... to speed BACK up for the return trip it'd take another 10-15... then to slow BACK down... it'd take another 10-15. (This is all just uneducated guesses on my part btw) So total we'd be blowing up 25 on liftoff and then transporting another max of 50 to another planet... where they may all blow up at once and cause untold havoc in the galaxy/solar system... total we'd have 70 nuclear explosions. I don't think that many bombs have been detonated in HISTORY much less in as short of a time period as a couple years. It seems a bit risky to me... I mean, the Space Shuttle has a fairly good operations record, but it has a had a couple failrues. Tragic that we lost their crews, but it was isolated to them. If one of these things blows up with 70 nukes on board, how much of the planet goes with it? It's a novel idea, and I'd love to see it happen if it weren't for that nasty radiation thing. Maybe we'll figure cold fission out someday and be able to use it instead.


TDavis
Posted 21 September 2006 at 04:34 pm

Dan Simmons speculates about such a ship in his latest book "Olympos". Once a vehicle is in space, small nuclear explosions could be used as propulsion quite effectively. Yes, you would use the same devices to slow down, and launching the damned thing would be tough. It would be hoped that any other star-faring civilizations would have sufficiently advanced technology to at least see us coming and make allowances. (Yeah, cspariah, that IS a mighty big "if")
Carl Sagan mentioned this very power source as a potential way to travel in space on an episode of "Cosmos".
He said, and I quote from memory here, that he "couldn't think of a better use for nuclear explosives".
Me either.


Anthony Kendall
Posted 21 September 2006 at 04:34 pm

Floj said: "I wonder, would a hydrogen bomb disentegrate the metal shielding? I know it's a fusion bomb; it might get too hot."

Floj, I'd considered adding this tidbit in to the article: By accident researchers found out that having even a thin layer of grease or graphite on a metal object will protect it from damage. I think this was discovered during an early nuclear bomb test when a metal object was exposed and there were distinct raised fingerprints after the test where the metal around the finger prints had been eroded, but the small amount of grease on the fingerprint protected the metal.


to-be-betrayed
Posted 21 September 2006 at 04:43 pm

hmm...i suppose if you found fissionable material with a short half-life, e.g. a day or two maximum, it *might* work...

i'm a little unsure as to how much force would be applied to the pilots though...pate sandwich anyone?


Asshe
Posted 21 September 2006 at 05:35 pm

DI Anthony!

I love these articles about the fevered dreams of science in the "olden times"! It makes one realise just how far we have come in knowledge in 50'ish years... and how much further we'll be along in another 50!!


CptPicard
Posted 21 September 2006 at 05:58 pm

Seems horribly inefficient to me to transfer energy from the nuke bomb only to the bottom plate of the spaceship, which is a small percentage of the entire imaginary sphere around the explosion. Most of the energy of the blast is wasted in the wrong directions. Wouldn't it be better to use a minimum size nuclear weapon exploded in the focus of a parabolic, reflective nozzle?


sulkykid
Posted 21 September 2006 at 05:59 pm

All I can say is, ... THANK GOD FOR A NEW ARTICLE!


Anthony Kendall
Posted 21 September 2006 at 06:06 pm

CptPicard said: "Seems horribly inefficient to me to transfer energy from the nuke bomb only to the bottom plate of the spaceship, which is a small percentage of the entire imaginary sphere around the explosion. Most of the energy of the blast is wasted in the wrong directions. Wouldn't it be better to use a minimum size nuclear weapon exploded in the focus of a parabolic, reflective nozzle?"

CptPicard,
Good question. Actually, the blast is reshaped from a spherical one to a cigar-shaped one by means of uranium radiation mirrors, shaped fission cores, and carefully shaped propellant disks. The net result is a cigar-shaped plasma cloud of nearly the same diameter as the bottom plate. More importantly, the blast sends almost all of its momentum towards the ship.

The parabolic-shaped blast chamber was actually tried, though I don't have a ready source for it now. It was found that the method was even more inefficient because much of the energy of the blast was wasted as it hit the walls of the chamber perpendicular to the direction of spaceship travel. Also, the bombs had to be really small, further reducing efficiency.


journeyman
Posted 21 September 2006 at 06:28 pm

haha...sweet! i suggested this article! nice job!


SparkyTWP
Posted 21 September 2006 at 07:21 pm

PresMatt said: "...So total we'd be blowing up 25 on liftoff and then transporting another max of 50 to another planet… where they may all blow up at once and cause untold havoc in the galaxy/solar system… total we'd have 70 nuclear explosions. I don't think that many bombs have been detonated in HISTORY much less in as short of a time period as a couple years."

50 nuke bombs going off at once are insignificant compared to the total energy reaching the planet from the sun in 1 second. Other than leaving a decent sized crater, it would hardly damage a planet, much less a solar system (The life on that planet, on the other hand, would probably be much more severely affected). BTW, since Hiroshima, there have been over 2,000 nuclear test detonations, of which over 350 of which were atmospheric tests.


SparkyTWP
Posted 21 September 2006 at 07:23 pm

to-be-betrayed said: "hmm…i suppose if you found fissionable material with a short half-life, e.g. a day or two maximum, it *might* work…"

I don't understand, what does the halflife have to do with this? If anything, this makes the launch impossible since your material decomposes before you even get it out of the factory.


Sen.McCarthy
Posted 21 September 2006 at 09:12 pm

Are the Russians selling tickets yet?


MaddMan
Posted 21 September 2006 at 10:31 pm

Sen.McCarthy said: "Are the Russians selling tickets yet?"

Yeah, but still not to Madonna.


PresMatt
Posted 22 September 2006 at 01:35 am

SparkyTWP said: "50 nuke bombs going off at once are insignificant compared to the total energy reaching the planet from the sun in 1 second. Other than leaving a decent sized crater, it would hardly damage a planet, much less a solar system (The life on that planet, on the other hand, would probably be much more severely affected). BTW, since Hiroshima, there have been over 2,000 nuclear test detonations, of which over 350 of which were atmospheric tests."

As I said, it was all assumptions on my part. I'm not a nuclear physicist by any means lol... It's not so much planets I was concerned about, but asteroid belts (kuiper belt for example) and/or smaller bodies in close proximity (moons for example). If 50 nukes blew all at once near an asteroid belt, there’s no telling how many new Near Earth Objects COULD be created... And if 50 nukes blew close to the moon, say as it was slingshotting via gravity, there’s not telling how it could affect Earth. The moon is currently moving away from the Earth (and this is from memory) around an inch a year. If that were increased to 6 inches a year or a foot a year by a nuclear blast there’s no telling how tides could be adversely affected in the future. In the grand scheme of things 50 nukes isn't much, but that’s still a hell of a lot of force and a hell of a lot of radiation. It's a lot of "what if's" and "maybes" ... There are a lot smarter people than I working on this, or some other form or next generation propulsion system as we speak in some undisclosed location under a mountain or in a desert somewhere. Hopefully they'll figure something out that wouldn't have even a 1% chance of destroying all life on Earth.


exsomnis
Posted 22 September 2006 at 01:48 am

Maybe it's the old noir and generally aged look of the movie, but I could never get more than 10 minutes into Dr. Strangelove, without giving up.

Of all the novel ways to propel one's self into space, I think nuclear blast propulsion is by far the most ill-advised and narcissistic method ever. Even reading about it in sci-fi wasn't enough to suspend belief.


Metryq
Posted 22 September 2006 at 03:31 am

Collaborations involving smaller Orions launched atop modified Saturn V vehicles were proposed by both parties.

There was an NTR (nuclear thermal rocket) project called NERVA, but I never heard about small Orions on top of Saturn boosters. The Wikipedia article linked to a PDF of a NASA study. I'll have to do some reading. At any rate, Orion always struck me as one of those crude, early forms of a concept that looks good on paper and may even work well in model tests, yet will never get built because it is crude and impractical. Pulse detonation may be a solution one day, but it will probably be greatly refined.


planetjk
Posted 22 September 2006 at 05:54 am

I think I speak for us all when I say, "Where's the kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom!"


DoctorD
Posted 22 September 2006 at 06:03 am

This is a pretty neat concept for using nuclear energy. How about building a nuclear power plant to power a magnetic sled (sling shot) launching at the equator? That way we don't expose the world (at least not any more than we are now).


orielbean
Posted 22 September 2006 at 06:19 am

exsomnis said: "Maybe it's the old noir and generally aged look of the movie, but I could never get more than 10 minutes into Dr. Strangelove, without giving up.

Of all the novel ways to propel one's self into space, I think nuclear blast propulsion is by far the most ill-advised and narcissistic method ever. Even reading about it in sci-fi wasn't enough to suspend belief."

That is too bad; it really has some fantastic lines and great acting in it. I suggest watching a WWII movie first, then Strangelove after, to get the full effect of what Kubrick was going for.

As to nuke launches, I agree. However, I think if we could get an orbital launch together, and get some space assemblies going, it becomes a lot more useful. It's the pesky gravity well that causes most of our spacefaring troubles...


1c3d0g
Posted 22 September 2006 at 08:08 am

I recall NASA launched a Pluto-bound rocket this year which had a plutonium-powered engine. So, even though it may not use the same technique. successful remnants of the projects continue to be pursued to this day.

Edit: yeah here it is. :-)

http://www.cnn.com/2006/TECH/space/01/19/pluto.mission/index.html


jaydawg53
Posted 22 September 2006 at 08:24 am

sulkykid said: "All I can say is, … THANK GOD FOR A NEW ARTICLE!"

No doubt! i thought the same thign today when I opened the DI page. I kept gagging every time I saw that about picking noses! And EATING it? Ugh...........


Captain Blowhard
Posted 22 September 2006 at 09:26 am

The one thing that makes this project not only viable but perhaps ( Dare I say it ) 0ne day a neccesity. Is enviromental disaster here on Earth.
Perhaps our situation will degrade so badly that something like this could be the last hope for a doomed human race.
I think we should start building the "Behemoth" now . . . Maybe I played too much Civilization though.

Suddenly I am thinking of Dr. Zarkhoff from Flash Gordon , he had a rocket in his lab .
So I dont see why I shouldnt have one too. I'm off to the scrap yard !


Shandooga
Posted 22 September 2006 at 10:36 am

How disturbing that such obviously intelligent (in one sense of the word) people could be seduced by the ridiculous fantasy of space travel. Why would anyone would assume that they are *bound* to meet with success just because they spent a WHOLE LOT OF MONEY on a space ship? Outer space is more vast than any of us can comprehend almost entirely barren (the only empirically demonstrated exception being Earth) and inestimably hostile.

With all the knowledge we (should) have of what makes planet Earth so very special you'd have to be a fool to the 3rd power to expect to find anything even remotely similar within whatever paltry distance a human lifespan could travel. Earth is big enough for all of its inhabitants (whether or not you like most of them) and there's NOWHERE ELSE TO GO! Just accept it.


Captain Blowhard
Posted 22 September 2006 at 10:41 am

open your mind, and your eyes.
we are not unique, we are not alone.
All else is over zealous religous dogma.


Anthony Kendall
Posted 22 September 2006 at 10:44 am

Shandooga said: "How disturbing that such obviously intelligent (in one sense of the word) people could be seduced by the ridiculous fantasy of space travel."

Call me an idealist, call me unrealistic, and go ahead and call me unitelligent (in one sense of the word). I've been seduced by the fantasy of space travel, however ridiculous.

That fantasy provides me with a bright hope for the future of our species. The alternative is that we continue to live trapped in the confines of a world we've outgrown (or soon will) in so many ways. I very much look forward to the day when we can tap the material and energy riches of our solar system.

I will never see a day when humans travel to nearby star systems, but it seems little fantasy to say it will happen. After all, it is technically possible to do so; we just need sufficient motivation.


Indosilver
Posted 22 September 2006 at 11:04 am

I was always under the impression that this project was called Thunderwell, but apparently that was the name of a very similar project that was never carried out. I first read about it on nuclearweaponarchive.org (probably the best site out there if you're interested in this stuff). Here's a link. http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Tests/Plumbob.html#PascalB


SparkyTWP
Posted 22 September 2006 at 11:20 am

PresMatt said: "As I said, it was all assumptions on my part. I'm not a nuclear physicist by any means lol… It's not so much planets I was concerned about, but asteroid belts (kuiper belt for example) and/or smaller bodies in close proximity (moons for example). If 50 nukes blew all at once near an asteroid belt, there’s no telling how many new Near Earth Objects COULD be created… And if 50 nukes blew close to the moon, say as it was slingshotting via gravity, there’s not telling how it could affect Earth. The moon is currently moving away from the Earth (and this is from memory) around an inch a year. If that were increased to 6 inches a year or a foot a year by a nuclear blast there’s no telling how tides could be adversely affected in the future..."

You don't need to be. Honestly, I'm far from an expert in any of this, but all of this takes less than 5 minutes of searching on wikipedia or google.

The amount of radiation and force from a nuke is again insignificant compared to what you get from the sun. The moon gets far more pushing force from the sun's radiation/solar wind than it would get from several dozen nukes.

I won't get into the physics, but the blast would only move the moon once, not accelerate the 1 inch/year movement.


gilster
Posted 22 September 2006 at 11:34 am

Shandooga's skepticism may be challenged fairly soon, as many of those studying exoplanets believe we'll have the hardware in place to detect terrestrial-type worlds within the next decade or so. We'll see, but I wouldn't rule out finding a few blue and green worlds around even nearby stars. Recent research suggests that even Centauri A and B are likely candidates for such worlds.


themuffinking
Posted 22 September 2006 at 03:03 pm

We don't go to space to escape earth. We go to space because it's the most badass thing we can think of.


etonalife
Posted 22 September 2006 at 03:26 pm

As a species we have an utmost obligation to survive. By spreading out and diversifying ourselves will only increase our chances of success, such as we have done for the past thousands of years. We also have an obligation to understand space simply because of the destruction it can so easily wage on our little ball here.

The further we can reach into space, I say the better. I am no fan of intergalactic warfare as much as I am of worldly wars. I also believe that our goal of space must not harm our mother planet. I simply don't feel comfortable with the nuke-powered ship throwing its waste into our clouds. But who knows? What I do know, however, is if we sit here and wait, humans will reach their demise sooner or later. Perhaps we can someday build a self-sustaining ship that has no need to land, until the travelers find a nice warm spot with white sands and blue skies...


Shandooga
Posted 22 September 2006 at 03:44 pm

Anthony Kendall said: "...That fantasy provides me with a bright hope for the future of our species. The alternative is that we continue to live trapped in the confines of a world we've outgrown (or soon will) in so many ways. I very much look forward to the day when we can tap the material and energy riches of our solar system. "

Thank you for your non-hostile response, Anthony. Truth be told, I've been an avid watcher of the Star Trek series for half of my life. That said, the pastime has not (for me) blurred the line between reality and fantasy (as television has so reliably done since its inception). Had so many people not been mislead by the MATHEMATICALLY IMPOSSIBLE theory of evolution (which has caused more war than religion this century), they would not, subsequently, be pre-disposed to follow-up fantasies such as the current topic. Life doesn't just "spring up" from non-living matter and suitable planets are not randomly organizing themselves in the hopes that they'll one day be discovered by a wandering race of would-be inhabitants.

A truly random occurrence must be characterized by random distribution. To illustrate: suppose the police are called out to an incident. At the scene they first find a body. A man next steps forth and confesses that he hit the person *by accident.* That would be believable but if further examination of the scene turns up bullet casings, the body shows puncture wounds, a knife is found in the back (you get the point) who would believe that the subsequent injuries resulted from successive accidents? No evolutionist would. You didn't even believe OJ's story (did you?) and there were far less than a million clues in that case.

*All* of the millions of life forms we know of in the entire universe exist on this one small planet (a tiny spot relative to the universe). Were life the result of any number of successive random events, it would necessarily be spread randomly throughout the universe. True we have not explored the *entire* universe but whether or not life is evenly spread throughout it is not necessarily uncertain.

Life is so very abundant on Earth (and the matter is complicated exponentially by each distinct form) while the moon, and all other observed heavenly bodies in the solar system have exhibited *no life whatsoever* (no, I will not speculate that there *might* be bacteria under the ice on Triton, that's just sheer desperation). The consideration of what we *do* know about these few planets is enough to establish that life is *not* randomly distributed through out the universe and, therefore, *cannot* be a product of a series of random events--however long the series. Of course the implications of this truth are unacceptable to some and so they prefer to deny it.

Anthony Kendall said: "... it is technically possible to do so; we just need sufficient motivation."

Again, technology and motivation will not, of themselves, produce any viable planets for humans to also ruin.


Anthony Kendall
Posted 22 September 2006 at 07:45 pm

Shandooga,
If it turns out that life is not common (or anywhere else) throughout the Universe, I think that makes the imperative to explore it so much more compelling. For discussion I'll accept your position that life is unique to this planet, which means that humans are the unique form of intelligent life in the Universe. What a wonderful position that puts us in! Intelligence is something entirely different from inanimate matter and cold physical laws. Intelligence has the capability of manipulating physical laws to its own ends, something that exists nowhere else.

Think of the responsibility that gives us. Why would we want to keep intelligent life confined to one tiny little body? How could we think of risking it all, the only instance of emergent awareness, if a rogue asteroid comes too close to our little Earth? In that light we are duty-bound to spread ourselves further out, and in doing so the cold Cosmos will come alive.

And, if you don't swallow that line of fancy...I do have to say that technology and motivation are sufficient to produce viable planets for humans to occupy (though, I can't say that we will be ruining something that is devoid of life. We have done nothing to this Earth that has had the tiniest bit of effect on anything outside of the biosphere). Lots of moons, asteroids, and even Mars, possess most of the minerals needed for human survival. Others can be imported without too much effort.

I disagree with your methods and conclusion that the Earth is the only place where life has arisen in this Universe. We have seen so, so little of it, and we have never set foot on a place capable of harboring life at any time in its history besides Earth. I think this next century will surprise us. We will find planets not unlike our own around nearby stars, and we will measure the composition of the gases in thir atmospheres. At that moment, the world may change forever. Or, it may not, and our sample size would then comprise some still immeasurably small fraction of the Universe. Either way, Orion might be able to get us to those worlds, and that's pretty damned cool.


cornerpocket
Posted 22 September 2006 at 07:56 pm

As far as I know, there aren't ANY stars which have definitely been determined to NOT have planets (green/blue or any other color), just as there haven't been ANY stars that clearly have been determined to actually HAVE planets. There are some pretty good reasons why, mostly to do with the limitations of our ability to "see" that far away. That would surely mean that we are way over our heads to be venturing statistically into probabilities of whether or not any such hypothetical planets have LIFE, as we know it or otherwise. And then to get all fuzzy about the diversity and the temperament and whatnot is preposterous. Time will tell, one might suppose, and until the future gives us some clues, we will have to settle for the concoctions of SciFi writers and the pure speculations of our imaginations.


Zack Jordan
Posted 22 September 2006 at 10:36 pm

Shandooga-
If I may, I'd like to point out a fallacy in your argument.

Astronomers estimate that there are as many as one hundred billion galaxies in the Universe. In ours, which is pretty average-sized, there are half a trillion stars (500 billion). Multiply those two numbers and you get a (very) rough estimate of how many stars exist in the Universe. Any of these stars, statistically speaking, could have an Earth-like planet orbiting it.

The problem arises when we give a cursory glance to a trillionth of a percent of these stars (if that) and conclude that no life could possible exist outside our world. This seems like a rather arrogant conclusion to me, and one based on personal judgments rather than logic.

You're right about one thing, though: if life is a random event it should be spread randomly. One possibility would be, say, an average of one life-supporting world per galaxy. That would be a random distribution, and utterly impossible to prove or disprove. We've just recently begun picking up gas giants around nearby stars; it'll be awhile before we can see something as small as Earth in a galaxy the size of grain of sand to the naked eye.


Crispy
Posted 23 September 2006 at 05:13 am

Shandooga said: "Had so many people not been mislead by the MATHEMATICALLY IMPOSSIBLE theory of evolution (which has caused more war than religion this century), they would not, subsequently, be pre-disposed to follow-up fantasies such as the current topic."

Leaving aside your fallacious argument about the nonexistence of non-terrestrial life, since Zack has already covered that...

1. Since when is evolution mathematically impossible? It's demonstrably plausible in my opinion. If you have supporting evidence produced by a mathematician then please share it.

(For an interesting, though completely off-topic, explanation of a complex organ like the eye could have developed, see http://www.videosift.com/story.php?id=10623&where=index [this is a streaming video, dial-up users beware])

2. Evolutionary theory has caused "more wars than religion this century"? I don't buy it. Let's see... the War on Terrorism was triggered by Islamic extremist belief (9/11), so that's one war for religion, and last time I checked 2001 was definitely this century. That means you have to produce at least *two* wars that evolution has caused in order to back up your assertion, and I don't believe that there is even one. (Flame wars aside, because they're not "wars" in the implied sense.)

Please prove me wrong though, I'm always anxious to learn.


Vivendi
Posted 23 September 2006 at 10:27 am

DI article Anthony.

While I'm sure that we could build something like this, I don't see how it's better than our current methods... I terms of energy, I'm pretty sure our current methods are more efficient than this. Maybe use fission once the spacecraft is in Earth's orbit.
Space ladder anyone?

PS: Shandooga, I too will like you to prove how evolution in "mathematically impossible". By prooving, I mean present Facts, not your opinion, from scientific journals.


Phill
Posted 23 September 2006 at 05:35 pm

Don't correct me if I'm wrong =P, but according to the String Theory, their should be alien life forms. We maybe one of the lucky universes with aliens, or it would just be the humans of the alternative dimensions.


donlaudanny
Posted 23 September 2006 at 11:21 pm

I'm sure there's a good reason for this and I'd like to hear from a mechanical engineer. Why don't we launch objects into space by momentum?

For instance, build a gigantic spring/pulley system (magnetic or mechanical) into the side of a mountain and sling the payload into space?


Drakvil
Posted 24 September 2006 at 12:09 am

Shandooga said: "... Had so many people not been mislead by the MATHEMATICALLY IMPOSSIBLE theory of evolution (which has caused more war than religion this century), they would not, subsequently, be pre-disposed to follow-up fantasies such as the current topic. Life doesn't just "spring up" from non-living matter and suitable planets are not randomly organizing themselves in the hopes that they'll one day be discovered by a wandering race of would-be inhabitants.

Really? To judge by the number of religious crackpots that have surfaced in this country alone to contest evolution, it has produced a lot more religion than it has produced wars (namely zero - I beg you to try and find a counter example, the results will be hilarious).


A truly random occurrence must be characterized by random distribution. ...
*All* of the millions of life forms we know of in the entire universe exist on this one small planet (a tiny spot relative to the universe). Were life the result of any number of successive random events, it would necessarily be spread randomly throughout the universe. True we have not explored the *entire* universe but whether or not life is evenly spread throughout it is not necessarily uncertain.

Life is so very abundant on Earth (and the matter is complicated exponentially by each distinct form) while the moon, and all other observed heavenly bodies in the solar system have exhibited *no life whatsoever* (no, I will not speculate that there *might* be bacteria under the ice on Triton, that's just sheer desperation). The consideration of what we *do* know about these few planets is enough to establish that life is *not* randomly distributed through out the universe and, therefore, *cannot* be a product of a series of random events–however long the series.

So, we've done a really cursory look at half the planets in one solar system (out of an estimated 500,000 trillion solar systems) and we've only gone in person to one moon - which has no atmosphere and a very low gravity, so that proves conclusively there is no chance of life on ANY of the others?

Random distribution of life isn't a coin toss... you don't flip a coin for each planet and say "life, no life, no life, life, no life, life...." : there are a myriad of conditions for each world that affect the probability... having no atmosphere pretty much rules out any chances. Having no solid ground anywhere on the planet (a la Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus) would very likely rule out anything we currently consider life, but life adapts to the conditions it occupies. If there is life there it would be very different from what we understand, and we might never realize it's there. Most aliens are not going to look like anything you see in Star Trek: aliens on that show look the way they do to cut down on the cost of sets and make-up.

We haven't ruled out many stars at all for not having habitable planets around them... the ones that we have ruled out the chance of life is because it is something like a trinary star system, or a binary with a recurring nova.

And 001000000 is a perfectly normal random distribution... it will happen at least once in a billion sets of 9 coin tosses. Compared to the number of stars out there, that is actually a pretty damn good chance. You would have your billion coin tosses 500,000 times over. Mathematically, your argument is self defeating. With your logic, you are more likely to flip a coin half a million times and have it come up tails no more than once than there is a _chance_ of life of some kind elsewhere in the universe.

Of course the implications of this truth are unacceptable to some and so they prefer to deny it.

A truth that is built on demonstrably faulty logic isn't really a truth. But then again, a faulty proof doesn't necessarily prove that the opposite is true either, so I will grant that there is a 1 in 500,000 trillion chance that there may be a grain of truth somewhere in one of your suppositions just by coincidence.


Drakvil
Posted 24 September 2006 at 12:23 am

DoctorD said: "This is a pretty neat concept for using nuclear energy. How about building a nuclear power plant to power a magnetic sled (sling shot) launching at the equator? That way we don't expose the world (at least not any more than we are now)."

Like "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" portrayed?

Crispy said: "(For an interesting, though completely off-topic, explanation of a complex organ like the eye could have developed, see http://www.videosift.com/story.php?id=10623&where=index )"

My pet iguana (and all green iguanas) has a third eye on top of his head. It doesn't function the same as the other two, it is more along the lines of the electric eye in the doorway to a store... it tells the animal if there is light there or not. Good example of a very rudimentary form of the eye that would certainly give a benefit to any animal that had one over all other animals that had none. They would know if it was day or night, where the sun was during the day (directionwise), and give him a warning if something passed between him and the light source. And a great starting point for mutations that would give other benefits like detecting motion in a more general wide-field way. There is no rule stating that eyes had to evolve in one step to the kind of thing animals have today. It just needed a few cells that were sensitive to light, and it progressed from there.


Anthony Kendall
Posted 24 September 2006 at 08:31 am

donlaudanny said: "I'm sure there's a good reason for this and I'd like to hear from a mechanical engineer. Why don't we launch objects into space by momentum?

For instance, build a gigantic spring/pulley system (magnetic or mechanical) into the side of a mountain and sling the payload into space?"

donlaudanny,
The main problem with such an idea is that atmospheric drag would sap most of the energy the object is launched with. And, if you could somehow impart enough momentum to the object so that it reaches orbit, the object would most likely be vaporized by the enormous heating in the lower atmosphere.

Also, in order for humans to survive the acceleration, the buildup in momentum has to be relatively slow, no more than a few g's. So, if one were trying to use an electromagnetic rail gun, for instance, the track would need to be many kilmoeters long.

If one were to build such a device, it would be best situated above most of the atmosphere, so on top of a very tall mountain. Even then it would be almost impossible to give it the momentum it needs to reach orbit, so a booster rocket on the craft, or some means of adding momentum to the object's flight would still be required.

For just such an idea, check out Marshall T. Savage's "The Millenial Project", available in many bookstores. In it, he mentally constructs a very long EM railgun with laser-assist-to-orbit that he calls the Bifrost Bridge.


frisbee212
Posted 24 September 2006 at 09:36 am

I didn't get a chance to read every reply, so I hope I'm not repeating anything here... This idea is used in Larry Niven's and Jerry Pournelle's (1985) novel "Footfall", as the only means to save the human race. I haven't read the book since the late 80's, but memory serves that it was technically explained in detail. It's a fun read I recommend highly. Also, as to the question of stearing and slowing down, I would assume the Orion could eaisly be fitted with conventional rockets for this purpose. Peace.


Bryan Lowder
Posted 24 September 2006 at 09:16 pm

Aw, shazbot. I guess I can't sit on an idea forever. Well, at least you did a decent job with it.

At least make sure people see this video:

http://www.nuclearspace.com/hotrod.htm
-BJL


Gary Goldfinch
Posted 25 September 2006 at 05:58 am

Ok, I'm no scientist :) but can someone explain this:

1. This craft would have a metre thick shield to protect the crew from the blast and the radiation released during the detonation.

2.

SparkyTWP said: "50 nuke bombs going off at once are insignificant compared to the total energy reaching the planet from the sun in 1 second.

So... there's a lot of solar radiation out there? Wouldn't the whole craft need a meter thick (or more) shield to protect it from this radiation then if it's so intense?

In fact, what about current spacecraft like the Shuttle? That's certainly not made from meter thick steel panels...

I'm probably showing my ignorance of even basic particle physics but, well, curious and all that. :)

.gg


justapeon
Posted 25 September 2006 at 06:12 am

The fallout and environmental impact of launching a craft like this would be insignificant. People get up in arms and scared mostly of things they know little about. Fear mongers use this to their advantage and get themselves put in positions of power. It is easier to be skilled in speading fear than to spread knowledge of complex systems.

A prime example: Jane Fonda...nuclear expert


Anthony Kendall
Posted 25 September 2006 at 07:38 am

Gary Goldfinch said: "So… there's a lot of solar radiation out there? Wouldn't the whole craft need a meter thick (or more) shield to protect it from this radiation then if it's so intense?...
.gg"

Gary,
I think what SparkyTWP was getting at was that the Orion spacecraft would not have a significant impact on the space radiation environment, particularly once it is outside the Earth's magnetosphere. The radiation from a nuclear detonation is *much* more intense 100 meters away than the interplanetary radiation, but it decreases very rapidly (as a factor of the distance from the explosion, squared). So, by the time you are a few hundred kilometers away from the nuclear blast (I don't know the exact number, I'm just guessing, though it could be pretty easily calculated), the net effect on the radiative environment is quite small.

The Shuttle gets away with having very little radiation shielding thanks to the protective magnetosphere around the Earth. With out it, the Shuttle and ISS astronauts would have a much tougher time of things.

justapeon says: "The fallout and environmental impact of launching a craft like this would be insignificant. People get up in arms and scared mostly of things they know little about."

If it were truly insignificant, then the physicists (Stanislaw Ulam, Freeman Dyson, Ted Taylor) who devoted nearly a decade of their lives to the problem were wrong, and I'm sure they would be very interested to hear your evidence! Ted Taylor, probably the world's foremost expert at the time on shaping the radiation and fallout from a nuclear blast felt it was probably the most difficult problem with the Orion design. He spent a lot of his effort in his career designing a "fallout-free" or "fissionless" fusion bomb. Had he succeeded, then maybe the environmental impact would have been acceptable. But he failed (and that's maybe a good thing for the world, because without fallout, there'd be a whole lot less fear over using nuclear weapons; we might have had a nuclear armageddon by now).


justapeon
Posted 26 September 2006 at 04:49 am

You are talking apples and oranges when comparing the launch of an orion type of craft and bombing a city. The vast majority of fallout is from activated materials not the fission device, even those are mostly short lived. If you did a sea launch with todays smaller shaped charge nuclear weapons it would hardly be noticable. People would clamour that it may cause one more cancer related death but even that is highly doubtful. There is far more risk burning fossil fuels (no not global warming, another crock) as they pump out a heck of a lot more radioisotopes into the atmosphere than an orion launch would. If people really cared they would be screaming for more nuclear power. You want energy independance, build 1000 more (for the US that is) nuke plants then generate hydrogen from radiolytic decomposition of water. Power everything from hydrogen or electricity.

But no..the Jane Fonda's and Al Gore's out there will continue to spread fear through misinformation. Orion will never be and neither will energy independance...alas.


Gary Goldfinch
Posted 26 September 2006 at 05:37 am

Thanks Anthony, I understand a bit better now.

Anthony Kendall said: " ... The Shuttle gets away with having very little radiation shielding thanks to the protective magnetosphere around the Earth. With out it, the Shuttle and ISS astronauts would have a much tougher time of things.

Ok, so this solar radiation would be a problem for space travel further from the Earth then I assume? I had a quick google on the Magnetosphere and it doesn't seem to stretch that far into space, how did the moonshots cope or did they have the appropriate shielding? Or did they time their missions so the moon was within the magnetosphere?

Sorry, too many questions, thinking out loud really... :) I'll do some research myself.


Floj
Posted 26 September 2006 at 08:53 am

Anthony Kendall said: "Floj, I'd considered adding this tidbit in to the article: By accident researchers found out that having even a thin layer of grease or graphite on a metal object will protect it from damage. I think this was discovered during an early nuclear bomb test when a metal object was exposed and there were distinct raised fingerprints after the test where the metal around the finger prints had been eroded, but the small amount of grease on the fingerprint protected the metal."

Woa, I wonder why that happens. That's Damn Interesting! Like Pie! Thanks for the explanation, and for the DI article!


SparkyTWP
Posted 26 September 2006 at 12:20 pm

Gary Goldfinch said: "Ok, so this solar radiation would be a problem for space travel further from the Earth then I assume? I had a quick google on the Magnetosphere and it doesn't seem to stretch that far into space, how did the moonshots cope or did they have the appropriate shielding? Or did they time their missions so the moon was within the magnetosphere?"

Most of the solar radiation was blocked by the metal on the spacecraft. Any high areas that had high concentrations of radiation (Such as the Van Allen belts) were passed through very quickly and did not pose any significant health risk. To be fair, all the astronauts that went to the moon have a slightly increased risk of cancer, but not a lot, and certainly much less than from other causes, such as smoking.


Martman888
Posted 26 September 2006 at 12:56 pm

Gary Goldfinch said: "Ok, so this solar radiation would be a problem for space travel further from the Earth then I assume? I had a quick google on the Magnetosphere and it doesn't seem to stretch that far into space, how did the moonshots cope or did they have the appropriate shielding? Or did they time their missions so the moon was within the magnetosphere?"

Wikipedia Article

The majority of danger that comes from interplanetary travel is from Cosmic Rays, which are more or less absurdly high velocity particles that like zip around space from distant realms. They are very bad for living cells, specifically if they strike DNA. I recall reading, m in what I believe was a Scientific American article concerning this problem with regards to the practicality of a mission to mars, that Apollo astraunauts were knowingly subject to cosmic rays. If I recall correctly, there were anecdotes in this article of some of the astronauts reporting sparse, minute, and random flashes that were visible to them if they closed their eyes, which aparently were the particles striking neurons in their occipital lobes. Again, the last part is just what my memory tells me; I cannot think of the exact source where I read this.


Drakvil
Posted 27 September 2006 at 11:02 am

Gary Goldfinch said: "Ok, so this solar radiation would be a problem for space travel further from the Earth then I assume? I had a quick google on the Magnetosphere and it doesn't seem to stretch that far into space, how did the moonshots cope or did they have the appropriate shielding? Or did they time their missions so the moon was within the magnetosphere?"

yes- once you venture further out from Earth's protective magnetosphere you would need better shielding (although today I think they have materials available that would take up less space but be roughly equivalent in mass). For simplicity's sake I'm sandwiching my reply between the two comment's I'm commenting on. I did see that Discover magazine in the last 3 months or so ran a cover story about how some are now questioning the wisdom of a Mars mission due to the long term exposure to cosmic radiation. They said that the particles pass completely through the ship and the astronaut, and that some of the strikes cause damage on a cellular level as they pass through the brain, soon leading to programmed cell death in the damaged cells - a one-cell-width straight line through the head. The explanation given there for the light bursts observed by apollo astronauts (and which made sleep difficult for them, because they saw lights with their eyes closed) was that the cosmic rays would trigger a response when they struck the retina at the back of the eye (regardless of the direction of origin - I find that idea weird: you see a cosmic ray in front of you that came from behind you or straight off to the side).

Solar radiation would not be as large a problem the further out from the sun you travel because the inverse square law applies to radiation as well as light. (the intensity of the light or radiation emitted decreases according to the formula I=E/D^2, where I is the percieved/experienced intensity, E is the total emitted and D is the distance from the object.) Since cosmic rays originate from all over the universe and they are many times more energetic than those that originate from the sun, they are a constant danger.

Martman888 said: "The majority of danger that comes from interplanetary travel is from Cosmic Rays, which are more or less absurdly high velocity particles that like zip around space from distant realms. ... there were anecdotes in this article of some of the astronauts reporting sparse, minute, and random flashes that were visible to them if they closed their eyes, which aparently were the particles striking neurons in their occipital lobes. "


plowshare
Posted 27 September 2006 at 01:24 pm

Anthony Kendall said: "I will never see a day when humans travel to nearby star systems, but it seems little fantasy to say it will happen. After all, it is technically possible to do so; we just need sufficient motivation."

The fantasy appeals greatly to me too, but there are some big obstacles to overcome. One I read about long ago is that when a spaceship gets to speeds on the order of 0.1c, the hydrogen atoms it bumps into turn into high energy penetrating rays like the cosmic rays people have been worrying about here.

I greatly enjoy books that talk about Orion and the more sophisticated Project Daedalus [which also has a Wikipedia entry, albeit a shorter one than for Orion] which may be technically feasible too, but they all seem to think that shielding the astronauts on 50-year journeys from radiation is nothing to worry about.
They all seem oblivious to the hydrogen-to-radiation problem, though.

By the way, I was amazed to read that part of Project Orion was using bombs to blast off from earth. I never imagined anything other than assembling the ship in space and setting the bombs off there. Also, I never thought of using it for anything other than sending instrumental probes to other solar systems.
Even if the radiation problem could be solved, Daedalus seems a much better choice, especially if we wanted to slow things down for a landing rather than just whizzing along in a flyby.


Drakvil
Posted 28 September 2006 at 12:36 am

Now NASA has another craft called Orion - and it's slated to replace the shuttles in about 8 years.

http://www.space.com/businesstechnology/060927_techwed_orion.html


Silverhill
Posted 28 September 2006 at 11:59 pm

addressing just a few ;-) points here...please pardon the length, but this is a strong interest of mine, and there have been so many contributions already!

Floj says:
I wonder, would a hydrogen bomb disintegrate the metal shielding? I know it's a fusion bomb; it might get too hot.

No; any given blast-plasma is not in contact with the pusher plate for long enough.

middlenamefrank says:
It's a chasing game of diminishing returns which pretty much precludes, for instance, a chemical rocket ever taking a manned mission to Mars

If you mean a constant-acceleration ship, sure; the fuel requirement would indeed be prohibitive. The usual style of mission, though—accelerate, coast, decelerate—would be quite feasible. See, for instance, Robert Zubrin’s “Mars Direct” proposal.

davidw987 says:
You would need an awful lot of fissionable material to launch one of these suckers.

Not as much as you might think. Nuclear reactions are about 1,000,000 times as powerful as chemical reactions. It takes less than 20 lb. of plutonium to make a 4 kT nuke, such as was mentioned in the article, and we can produce almost arbitrarily large amounts of Pu via breeder reactors.

PresMatt says:
If one of these things blows up with 70 nukes on board, how much of the planet goes with it?

A negligible amount, even if all 70 bombs went off on a planetary surface. Hurricanes and earthquakes release much more energy than that, and even they don’t tear up the crust to a notable degree. (Note that I’m talking about planetary-scale effects, not human-scale, here.)

It's a novel idea, and I'd love to see it happen if it weren't for that nasty radiation thing. Maybe we'll figure cold fission out someday and be able to use it instead.

Do you mean “cold fusion” there? If it were to become workable, it could perhaps be used as the energy source for, say, an ion engine or a laser drive, but not for a high-impulse drive such as a chemical or nuclear-pulse rocket. Even a nuclear thermal rocket wouldn’t be a suitable application, I believe, because of the relatively low energy density of the putative cold-fusion process.

to-be-betrayed says:
hmm…I suppose if you found fissionable material with a short half-life, e.g. a day or two maximum, it *might* work…

By this, do you mean a fission reaction whose product nuclides have short half-lives, so as to minimize the fallout problem? Or do you mean “use short-lived stuff as the propellant”? (Which, as was said above, would be very impractical.)

PresMatt says:
It's not so much planets I was concerned about, but asteroid belts (Kuiper Belt for example) and/or smaller bodies in close proximity (moons for example). If 50 nukes blew all at once near an asteroid belt, there’s no telling how many new Near Earth Objects COULD be created…

Asteroid belts are not nearly as dense as many people imagine them to be. A field of asteroids such as was raced through by Han Solo in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back would quickly collapse into one large lump. Setting off a cluster of nukes in a real asteroid belt might not affect any of them; at best, just a few.

And if 50 nukes blew close to the moon, say as it was slingshotting via gravity, there’s no telling how it could affect Earth.

50 nukes detonating in a close lunar orbit would briefly heat a small part of the surface. Even detonating them on the surface would only make a new crater and would cause a few moonquakes, but the change of Luna’s orbit (and the consequent change in terrestrial tides) would be essentially zero.

exsomnis says:
Of all the novel ways to propel one's self into space, I think nuclear blast propulsion is by far the most ill-advised and narcissistic method ever. Even reading about it in sci-fi wasn't enough to suspend belief.

Narcissistic, exsomnis? Please explain.
And—if you couldn’t suspend disbelief by reading fiction, could you do it by reading the physicists’ reports from actual calculation and observation?

1c3d0g says:
I recall NASA launched a Pluto-bound rocket this year which had a plutonium-powered engine. So, even though it may not use the same technique. successful remnants of the projects continue to be pursued to this day.

Indeed; the RTGs (Radioisotope Thermal Generators) have been successfully used for many years now. (Plutonium, even in combined form such as the oxide that is used here, is active enough to keep itself rather warm if properly insulated. This heat can then provide electricity via thermocouples.)

Shandooga says:
How disturbing that such obviously intelligent (in one sense of the word) people could be seduced by the ridiculous fantasy of space travel.

Space travel has not been a fantasy since 4 October 1957 (Sputnik I).

Why would anyone would assume that they are *bound* to meet with success just because they spent a WHOLE LOT OF MONEY on a space ship?

Such assumptions are based on prolonged, careful investigation, which must take place before anyone will be willing to spend money on the project. Be careful with your assumptions, OK?

With all the knowledge we (should) have of what makes planet Earth so very special you'd have to be a fool to the 3rd power to expect to find anything even remotely similar within whatever paltry distance a human lifespan could travel.

We don’t blindly expect to find “Class M” (Roddenberry’s notation) planets nearby, Shandooga. We observe and measure, and from the information so gleaned we estimate the chances. Then we do further tests to refine the estimates. Astrophysicists and planetologists do not sit around idly!

Earth is big enough for all of its inhabitants (whether or not you like most of them) and there's NOWHERE ELSE TO GO! Just accept it.

Earth’s resources—the economically useful ones, that is—are small compared to the off-planet resources. More than 90% of the accessible energy and materials in the Solar System are not on Earth.
As far as “nowhere else to go”—nonsense! Space provides an enormous livable volume, even if we never terraform a planet—which we’ll also be able to do, eventually.

I refuse to “just accept it”. As I’ve seen it put: “The meek shall inherit the Earth. The rest of us will go on to the stars.”

etonalife says:
As a species we have an utmost obligation to survive. By spreading out and diversifying ourselves will only increase our chances of success, such as we have done for the past thousands of years. We also have an obligation to understand space simply because of the destruction it can so easily wage on our little ball here.

Indeed! “Earth is too fragile a basket for humanity to put all its eggs in.”—Robert A. Heinlein

Shandooga says:
Had so many people not been misled by the MATHEMATICALLY IMPOSSIBLE theory of evolution

A process that is easily observable in the lab (or in the hospital) is not “mathematically impossible”. Brush up on your mathematics, especially probability and statistics.

Life doesn't just "spring up" from non-living matter

And you know this how? (Consider the Urey-Miller experiments, for instance. They did not produce life, no, but various essential precursor molecules were found to be easy to produce from entirely non-living (and non-biogenic) molecules.)

True we have not explored the *entire* universe

Or even a tiny, tiny fraction thereof.

The consideration of what we *do* know about these few planets is enough to establish that life is *not* randomly distributed throughout the universe and, therefore, *cannot* be a product of a series of random events–however long the series.

Eh? A random distribution would ensure that there would be spots with plentiful life, and spots with no life. So far, we’ve seen one life spot and many non-life spots…and tantalizing hints of other possible life-spots. We need to do more research and less pontification.

Shandooga said: “Anthony Kendall said: ‘… it is technically possible to do so; we just need sufficient motivation.’

“Again, technology and motivation will not, of themselves, produce any viable planets for humans to also ruin.”

Wrong again; see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terraforming for some basic information on terraforming.

Vivendi says:
While I'm sure that we could build something like this, I don't see how it's better than our current methods… In terms of energy, I'm pretty sure our current methods are more efficient than this.

A nuclear-pulse drive would be much more efficient than a chemical rocket, Vivendi. Consider the propellant-to-payload ratios where one type of propellant is 1,000,000 times as energy-dense as the other….

Phill says:
Don't correct me if I'm wrong =P, but according to the String Theory, there should be alien life forms.

Sorry, gonna correct you there. ;-) String Theory deals with cosmogony (the origin of the universe), not specifically with biology (or even abiogenesis).

Gary Goldfinch says:
Ok, I'm no scientist :) but can someone explain this:

1. This craft would have a metre-thick shield to protect the crew from the blast and the radiation released during the detonation.

2. SparkyTWP said: "50 nuke bombs going off at once are insignificant compared to the total energy reaching the planet from the sun in 1 second.

So… there's a lot of solar radiation out there? Wouldn't the whole craft need a meter-thick (or more) shield to protect it from this radiation then if it's so intense?

The key is: it’s not so intense. SparkyTWP was referring to the total amount of energy received by Earth, which is spread out over one-half the globe at a time. The power density is only about 1 kW/m^2.

Ok, so this solar radiation would be a problem for space travel further from the Earth then I assume? I had a quick Google on the Magnetosphere and it doesn't seem to stretch that far into space, how did the moonshots cope or did they have the appropriate shielding? Or did they time their missions so the moon was within the magnetosphere?

The missions were short enough that the astronauts’ expected cumulative dose (principally from cosmic radiation) would be acceptably small.

plowshare says:
I greatly enjoy books that talk about Orion and the more sophisticated Project Daedalus … they all seem to think that shielding the astronauts on 50-year journeys from radiation is nothing to worry about.
They all seem oblivious to the hydrogen-to-radiation problem, though.

I’ve read an article or two in Analog that addressed the problem. One solution was to have a block of tungsten mounted forward of the spaceship on a long mast; the tungsten, because of its great density, would cast a gamma-ray (and fast-particle) shadow that enveloped the ship.


Gary Goldfinch
Posted 04 October 2006 at 03:58 am

Thanks Silverhill, great post.


Gary Goldfinch
Posted 18 October 2006 at 09:01 am

boingboing.net have posted some scans of Orion related data on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/xeni/sets/72157594329917915/

First time this material has been publically available they say.

Interesting stuff…


psyOtic
Posted 19 December 2006 at 11:32 pm

can i say one thing is responce to Silverhill's comment............ damn you know that the article was damn interesting when a responce is as long as the article itself.


Floj
Posted 07 March 2007 at 09:54 pm

Wow, I'm glad I took a moment to look back on one of my favorite articles! Thanks Silverhill, that was Damn Interesting. Man I hope you still comment on this site. This project rivals even pie with it's greatness. Such a craft would redefine the worlds concept of nuclear weapons.

Thanks again Anthony, Damn Interesting indeed!


hushoo
Posted 31 May 2007 at 07:09 pm

Just wondering...
Why do we search for "livable conditions" in extraterrestrial planets? There are lifeforms here on Earth that show that they CAN survive very harsh conditions.
How can we make sure that a planet without Earth-like characteristics does, or does not support life?


voodish
Posted 17 June 2007 at 08:39 am

A great article, like someone else mentioned it is these ground breaking events that make milestones in your lifetime. The next for me will be the Large Hadron Collider which will be switched on in November 2007. Like the Atomic Spaceship, people will always be sceptical but whatever your opinion it will make for an interesting month:
Further reading about the Large Hydron Collider


wayno@oz
Posted 18 March 2009 at 10:38 pm

Fantastic article guys!!!! Just one thing, for all of those who use the example of extremophile life found on Earth as a defence / offence when discussing the possibility of alien life, just remember that no scientist has yet proved that these kind of life forms didnt need sun and water/liquid to originally evolve. In all chance, these life forms may have only evolved/acclimatized to live in the conditions they currently occupy. I honestly believe the chance of finding life on Europa or Triton may be very slim for this same reason, Panspermia not withstanding. Sorry for getting off subject but the prevelance of alien life discussions compelled me to write!


dragondm6
Posted 27 August 2009 at 03:52 pm

We should build one while in orbit. We are very close to being able to make an elevator to space. It would be very easy to cart building materials up and down that way. Also, I personally think we should make a ship that is like a biodome, so it can support X amount of humans for eternity.


Space Odyssey
Posted 08 March 2012 at 12:56 pm

I am sorry because of my poor english (I am russian).

The main idea of Orion project, i.e., direct utilizing of the energy of nuclear explosions, was right and extremely productive. But this concept needs to be developed further an intestellar probe based on it could be realized.
Such a development is proposed in my artice https://sites.google.com/site/extremalmechanics/next_orion


Space Odyssey
Posted 08 March 2012 at 01:09 pm

Errata in the previous comment: inteRstellar, articLe :-)
I recommend to enter the specified site from Google Chrome.
Otherwise the article may be not displayed correctly.


John
Posted 10 May 2013 at 12:46 am

It's common in most reporting of "old Bang-Bang" to see lots of poetic license,
The 4000 ton ship used .1 kt bombs at lift-off, and maybe ,4 kt in space. Hardly the "huge mushroom cloud forming thousands of times brighter than the noon Sun" spectacle writers seem to be so fond of.
In space, Dyson said there would be a tiny brief barely visible flash as the bomb went off, followed a few thousandths of a second later by a building flare as the plasma piled up on the pusher plate.

Also, It could be clarified that assembling it in space and using it only in space, high orbit or above, would eliminate ALL environmental concerns -except the bomb-making industry, and without the Cold War impetus to 'damn the pollution, full speed ahead", I like to think we as a species are smart enough to handle fissionable fuels cleanly and responsibly.

It's also interesting to point out that though .1C is lousy performance for an interstellar ship, it's just fine for opening the solar system. Colonies in the Oort halo at 500AU or so would not be out of touch with ships like this that could make the run in a few years. The colonies only need to provide the propellant to go into the ships' bomb/thrust-pulse units (about 90% of the total "expended" mass of the rocket.)


Museful
Posted 14 June 2013 at 08:23 am

davidw987 said: "I expect the breaking mechanics would depend on the gravity of a nearby star."

Not possible. Gravity is what is called a "conservative force", meaning that all loss of kinetic energy due to gravity must go into gravitational potential energy. The only way to do that is if you end up further from the star than you started, regardless of trajectories.


END OF COMMENTS
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