09 April 2012

FWS Topics: Nuclear Weapons in Space

There is no power, no symbol like the nuclear explosion, that iconic mushroom cloud, the fear of the end of the world as we know. It then seems logical, that the ultimate power here on Earth would easily translate into the ultimate power in outer space warfare. Right?
Well....not really.

The Effect of Nuclear Weapons in Space

Since 1945, the general public as been keenly aware of the effect of nuclear weapons within the atmosphere of our planet, but once you take away the atmosphere, the true awesome power of the bomb is taking away. The issue is that 50% of a nuclear weapon's power is from the concussive force (the blast wave), which would not exist in the vacuum of space. 35% is heat, and rest (15%) is the series of nuclear radiation. Atmosphere is the conductor of the destructive power of a nuke, and once you take away that, you are left with a WMD that is only effective (to some degree) within one kilometer of the target. That is damn close in space combat, like living in the underwear of the person you're trying to kill. Not mention, that a nuclear device has to survive through the enemy warship's AAA defenses and any 'space fighters' forming a screen of outgoing fire.
 If and when a nuclear weapon at its mark, it would appear in space like a bright flash, no mushroom cloud, or wave of hellfire, just extremely bright light, a dense shower of gamma rays, beta particles, and neutrons.
If a warship was in 'ground zero' (about one kilometer) of the spherical nuclear explosion, than there could be critical damage to the warship. The hot bath of rays, particles, and neutrons could knock out sensors, computers, and if the ship's hull is damaged due to the impulsive shock wave, the crew could be exposed to lethal doses of radiation. However, much like the Battlestar Galactica, warships would be fitted with fallout shelters to protect the crew from solar radiation or nuclear strikes. The real risk would be the effect of the impulsive shock  and the heat of the nuclear explosion on the hull, resulting in widespread cracking, deforming of the hull due to superheating, boiling off of antennas, and all of this in the blink of an eye. Then the last element of a direct nuclear strike on a warship, is the shockwave tossing the ship around, forcing the crew to wrestle the ship back under control, if the thrusters are not boiled off.   

Nuclear Weapons in Space Combat

The obvious usage of space-based nuclear weapons is raining them down on a hostile planet, which can be seen in such sci-fi works as Starblazers and the new Battlestar Galactica. However, could you use nuclear-tipped missiles/torpedoes to destroy an enemy warship? That greatly depends on if you can bridge the gap between you and them without the enemy warship using their defensive armaments to shot it down, and then exploding the nuclear munition within one kilometer of the ship's hull. That is a great deal of 'ifs' in a dire situation, and in truth, a relativistic kill vehicle would be a much greater threat than a nuclear bomb, and more effective. 
Given that a nuclear weapon's greatest power is endoatmospheric, than if the nuclear device could be detonated within the hull of a hostile warship, the effective would be completely lethal on a massive scale. The physical confines of the ship's hull would act as an atmosphere, allowing the bomb's full power to unfold, which was seen in the Stargate Atlantis episode: "the Siege part 3", when the Earth battleship Daedalus uses an Asgard teleportor to delivery the Mark VIII warheads inside of the Wrath vessels with powerful results. This was a tactic used in the original 1994 film, when the Air Force tactical nuke was teleported inside the Ra's pyramid ship.
Given the limitations of nuclear weapons lethality, I explored another use while writing a hard science space combat sequence in my book Endangered Species, being used for the soft kill. While nuclear explosions in space may not possess the punch they do within the atmosphere, they do spill a great deal of radiation into the local area. That, coupled with the intense light, makes for a prefect recipe for a spaceborne flash-bang, allowing for a good ship captain to sneak some missiles or kinetic projectiles during the confusion.

Other uses of Nukes in Space

Nuclear Pulse Propulsion

First proposed in 1947, and experienced with during the 1950's and 1960's, nuclear pulse propulsion promised to have humans orbiting Saturn by 1970. This interstellar drive system explodes nuclear bombs for thrust at the rear of the vessel, and via a series pusher plates, the vessel is pushed to achieve about 10% to 15% of light-speed (under constant acceleration). The project was abandon due to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, and that using the drive system for lift-off could be fatal to the crew. It was determined that if there would be nuclear pulse propulsion ship than it needed to be constructed in space, which only became semi-possible when the ISS was finished. So, how long would it take for a Nuclear Pulse Propulsion starship to get to Alpha Centurai? About 85 years. Somebody better pack the complete Dr.Who series. One of the few visual works on nuclear pulse propulsion was the 2009 Ronald Moore pilot Virtuality which is on DVD, very much worth checking out.

Asteroid Defense

Nuclear weaponry is a popular asteroid mitigation strategy for Near-Earth Object on a impact course, both in scientific and pop culture circles. Nuclear munitions could be landed on the surface of the NEO or drilled into the object, like that movie, to maxim the impact of the nuclear payload. These would be delivered via robotic probes, or even rammed into the surface like the lunar impact of the LCROSS in October of 2009. The downside of this nuclear blast would shattering the NEO into more pieces that would strike the Earth on more sites, like an outer space rock shotgun. Another strategy is to use nuclear detonation to divert the path of the NEO away from a extinction level event with Terra.  
Spaceborne Nuclear Weapons in Sci-Fi

For the most part, science fiction has ignored the use of spaceborne nuclear arms in favor for laser beams, missiles, and the mythical Nova bombs. The result could be scientific, that since nukes are not the doomsday weapon in space that they are here on Earth. Of course, sci-fi creators could be not interested in dragging the stereotypes that nuclear weapons carry through their story. Nuclear weapons do come up as often the 'last resort' option during alien invasions, like in ID4 or Crysis 2.

Examples of Nukes in Space in Sci-Fi

Star Trek: Enterprise

Prior to the Xindi Attack on Earth, the NX-01 Enterprise was armed with a missile system called 'Spatial Torpedoes'. Information these offensive weapons is very limited, however it is likely that these torpedoes are armed with a nuclear package. That comes from Star Trek canon that the Earth-Romulan War (2156-2160) was waged with atomic weapons on both sides. These torpedoes were replaced by early Photon Torpedo during the Enterprise mission into Xindi space.

Babylon 5

In the 1998 TNT TV-movie Thirdspace, an ancient Vorlon Jumpgate was discovered floating in Hyperspace, and the device is restored, opening a gateway to another dimension, and a terrible enemy. Overwhelmed by these advanced unknown xenos, the ships around B5 attempted to open a hole in the device's energy shield, while Captain John Sheridan (in a EVA spacesuit) plants a "Model 501/6 Mk XI Thermonuclear Charge".
Also, Fusion bombs were mentioned in the series during the Narn/Centauri War, along with some of the Earth Force warships being armed with nuclear missiles. Of course, the most famous example of nukes being used in Babylon 5 is when during the Earth-Minbari War, when Sheridan destroyed the Minbari flagship Dark Star by stripping his wounded vessel of its nuclear warheads and mining the asteroid around their vessel with the nuclear charges. It took two danger close nuclear explosions to rip the Dark Star apart.

Battlestar Galactica

Ronald Moore's reimagined Battlestar Galactica put nuclear weapons in space back into sci-fi  mindset, and may be one of the most realistic portrayal of nuclear weapons in ship-to-ship naval space engagement. While the Cylons used nuclear bombardment to destroy the 12 colonies of Kobol, they also ship-to-ship missiles armed with nuclear warheads to take down everything from battlestars to shipyards. While the Galactica uses her main cannons, AAA guns, and fighters to prevent the Cylons from landing a nuke, the Cylons flood the space battlefield with their raiders, allowing them to act as the AAA screen. From the looks of her, the battlestar Galactica is made to take a pounding, and not just from normal weaponry, but also from nukes, which would be a design consideration if spaceborne nukes were a threat.

Stargate Atlantis

While the advanced Asgard race helped the Earth (mostly the United States) develop several deep space warships, like the Daedalus, but refused to arm the Terran warships. So, the rescuers of the ancient alien city of Atlantis were confined to human weapons of the 20th century, two types of nuclear missiles and rapid-fire rail guns (mostly likely are Gauss Guns in reality). It was only later, when the Asgard race died out, that the 304 class warships were rearmed with alien plasma beam cannons.

Star Trek: TOS

The original Star Trek series dealt with spaceborne nuclear weapons on a number of times, which seems odd, considering the advanced Matter/Anti-Matter ordnance at the disposal of the starships. During the Earth/Romulan War of the 2150's, it was stated in the TOS that the war was waged with atomic weapons, which was ruled out when Enterprise aired. The NCC-1701 Enterprise was attacked twice with nuclear weapons, once during The Balance of Terror episode, where a Romluan Warbird dumps a nuclear device out with the trash, and the other when the planet Zeon launched a nuke at the Enterprise in the episode Patterns of Force.


The jolt that sent Luna off scream through the Cosmo was a massive nuclear explosion on the dark side of the moon. It seems that in the universe of Space:1999, the moon is a safe-site for Terran nuclear waste, and much of the waste is stored below the surface, and transported around by specially outfitted Eagle transports. On a couple of Space:1999 sites, there is machinery labeled 'laser/nuclear control', which leads me to believe that some of the Eagle transports can be armed with ship-to-ship missiles with nuclear warheads.


  1. You are quite right- ordinary garden-variety nukes are quite limited in space combat. Not entirely useless, of course- you don't want to have a line-of-sight less than a few kilometers if someone is setting off nukes- but not the "ultimate weapon". Raining them down on hostile planets is a possibility, but spacefaring civilizations can also use kinetic weapons, if they can push a mass of meteoric iron fast enough in the general direction of their foes.

    You should have mentioned Casaba-Howitzer and the Project Orion space battleship. Casaba-Howitzer is a shaped-charge warhead designed to direct a spear of nuclear fire at an enemy vessel- in essence a one-shot raygun. Even though ordinary nukes don't work to well, shaped charge warheads and explosively formed penetrators could be used as deadly atomic torpedoes.

    Space 1999 always leaves me wandering why a supposedly scientific moonbase that is obviously not designed for combat needs lasers and nukes. I also wonder why their moon building all have single-pane, easily shattered windows. I suppose the designers were trying to cut corners and save money? But there still is funding for the lasers and nukes...

    Christopher Phoenix

  2. Is the Orion Battleship the one from Fottfall? You are right, I should have added that! Nice catch, Mr. Phoenix! I must have read around the Casaba-Howitzer on atomic rockets website...ugh, once again, I should have added that.
    I wonder if Space:1999 will ever great its remake...

  3. Actually, the Orion battleship is a real design that Footfall borrowed. The Air Force thought the 4000-ton Orion was just the right size for a space battleship armed to the teeth, and when they said armed, they meant ARMED. The Orion Battleship was to carry enough nuclear weapons to devastate an entire continent- 500 twenty megaton city-killer warheads, 5-in. naval cannon turrets, six hypersonic landing boats, and the dreaded Casaba-Howitzer. Have you ever noticed that sometimes real life is just like a SF novel from the time when anything nuclear was referred to as "atomic"?


    The problem with Space:1999 is that the basic idea is very flawed. A nuclear explosion powerful enough to knock the the Moon out of orbit would shatter the Moon. Even if you somehow got the Moon out of orbit, it would take tens of thousands of years for the Moon to reach another star, unless it was moving at relativistic velocities, and in that case the Eagles could never provide enough delta-V to slow down and land on planets as they do in every episode. The only way to do it would be to have an endless stream of negative space wedgies "warping" the Moon to new solar systems, which will get very strained. Space: 1999 is rather dated and silly-looking nowadays anyhow- even though I love the Mark 9 Hawks!!

    Christopher Phoenix

  4. In the Honor Harrington books, they talk about how at one time nuclear weapons were used more frequently, but by the time that the books start, they nuclear tipped warheads are being phased out in favor of laser warheads (which rely on nuclear power).

    I believe that nukes get used as weapons in Jerry Pournelle's Empire of Man/CoDominion/War World series.

    As far as TV shows, there was one in the late 50's ( I think) called Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I seem to remember at least once where they fired a nuclear missile off to defeat something.

    Another universe where atomic/nuclear weapons are used is in the Dune Universe. Although there, they have very strict rules about acceptable use.

  5. I cannot believe that I left DUNE off the list! I had the imagine pulled and the text written and didn't post it! Ugh.
    Thanks for the list, AngryBell! This was a difficult blogpost to reseach.
    I just the article on the ORION...and you are right, Mr. Phoenix, it was armed...like really armed! Yes, time has been unkind to Space:1999, but the Eagle/Hawk design is stil badass!

  6. I assume when you talk about a 1km radius, you are talking about a warhead with about 1mt of explosion? What would happen with something like the ultra-tsar bomb, or whatever it was called. The old Soviet design with a 100mt yield?

  7. Yeah, the Tsar Bomba was original 100MTs, but reduced to 50mts. If I remember the math from Atomic Rockets, even if you increase the yield, the effective range maybe 1.5 or 2 kilometers from the surface of the battlestar. Simply put, space sucks the power out of a nuke.

  8. The soviets use nuclear torpedos on there submarines now. Wouldn't be hard to convert the warheads from underwater to outerspace?

  9. No, has long as the warheads were attached to a rocket motor or launched via EM. Nukes could be used in early space combat, before the deployment of more advanced lasers and offensive/defensive systems.

  10. A 1 km radius heat weapon sounds like the makings of a defensive weapon against KEW volleys.

  11. Or if you have a heat plum drive that's hot enough just turn your drive in that direction. Any the drive don't get will miss most likely or your AAA can take out.

    I highly recommend the books by John J. Lumpkin "Through Struggle, The Stars" and "The Desert of Stars." The ships were built according to the Atomic Rocked Site that also reccomends this blog. The ships manouver in realistic ways and it is mostly hard science based.

    William I will get your book when funds allow.