On the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Elon Musk presented the idea that perhaps we could nuke Mars, in order to warm it up for colonizing. Like many (possible) supervillians, his deadpan made it difficult to tell if he was joking or completely serious. But it raises an interesting question, one asked with wonder by stoners and sci-fi writers alike: Can we drop a nuclear bomb in space?
As it turns out, we already have. In the early 1960s, with the Space Race under way, there was a series of experiments in which the United States dropped the bomb hundreds of miles above Earth. This culminated in an event known as the Starfish Prime, where we dropped a 1.4-megaton bomb about 250 miles above Earth. You can watch that below, but it is recommended you mute it and play Pink Floyd as you watch.
Realizing these experiments were both insane and dangerous, President John F. Kennedy signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963. That was over 50 years ago, and today we’re talking about bombs on whole different planets. Bombs closer to Earth have somewhat more predictable results, as some of the rules with magnetic fields still apply. When the Starfish Prime happened (and why is that the name of a metal band yet?), it strongly affected the Earth’s magnetic fields by causing blackouts and issues with electronics. Do we know enough about Mars and its atmosphere to drop a nuclear weapon on it?
Right after Hiroshima, there was a huge firestorm. Are fireballs in space a possibility? NASA engineer Dan Dietrich says fire in space is “potentially more lethal” and “less predictable” than on Earth. While that could make an enjoyable Michael Bay film, it would be a terrifying reality. What also of the post-bomb Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse? What happens with radiation in zero gravity? And the biggest question comes courtesy of Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.”
Nukes in Space. A moral quandary, yes. Movie plot, yes. A good idea as a way to microwave a planet? To be determined.
Lori Chandler is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, NY, which is the most unoriginal sentence she has ever written. You can look at her silly drawings on Tumblr, Rad Drawings, or read her silly tweets @LilBoodleChild. Enough about her, she says: How are you?
PHOTO CREDIT: iStock