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Is Russia mulling to experiment with using Nuclear weapons in space


By Girish Linganna

Russia recently rejected a UN resolution proposed by the US and Japan, which aimed to prevent the development and use of nuclear weapons in space. This action by Russia indicates that they are moving closer to making the idea of using nuclear weapons in space a possibility.

Thankfully, Russia did not express any intention to deploy a nuclear weapon in space, which would be a violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. However, the Russian UN representative criticized the new resolution, referring to it as a deceptive tactic and claiming that they were being manipulated.

If Russia or any other country were to detonate a nuclear weapon above Earth, the consequences would be alarming. Such an explosion could be just as destructive as a ground-level detonation, posing a significant threat.

Detonating a nuclear bomb on the ground versus in orbit shows some significant differences. Dr. Michael Mulvihill, a research fellow at Teesside University, explains to BBC Science Focus that when nuclear weapons are detonated on the ground, they primarily emit a large amount of energy in the form of X-rays.

The X-rays released by a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere can heat the air to extremely high temperatures, resulting in a blazing inferno (destructive fire or intense heat). This intense firestorm generates the powerful shockwave and iconic mushroom cloud that engulfs debris and gives rise to fallout.

Fallout refers to the radioactive particles and debris that are dispersed into the atmosphere after a nuclear detonation. When a nuclear weapon is detonated in space, since there is no atmosphere, it does not produce mushroom clouds or shockwaves like it does on Earth. However, this doesn't mean that the effects are any less frightening. The consequences can still be quite alarming in their own way.

According to Mulvihill, in the vacuum of space, a nuclear explosion releases an immense amount of energy in the form of X-rays, gamma rays, intense streams of neutrons, and charged particles at the subatomic level (means lesser than atom). Additionally, it generates a phenomenon called an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP.

An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is a sudden surge of electromagnetic energy. When an EMP interacts with the upper atmosphere, it has the ability to remove electrons from it. This can result in the disruption of radar systems, communication failures, and the disabling of power systems.

Following the initial explosion, a band of radiation envelops the Earth, which can endure for months, or even years, without certainty. This radiation has the potential to harm satellites and, as Mulvihill highlights, it poses a significant danger to individuals in space during that period, including astronauts aboard the ISS.

According to Mulvihill, the EMP would disrupt the power systems on the ISS, causing severe damage to the life support systems and other critical components responsible for maintaining the station's atmosphere. Additionally, Mulvihill suggests that the astronauts onboard would likely be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. The conditions in orbit would be extremely inhospitable to life.

As the number of satellites in space continues to increase, with around 10,000 currently in low Earth orbit and tens of thousands more planned for future launches, the implications of detonating nuclear weapons in space become increasingly significant. This is due to our growing dependence on the systems we deploy in orbit.

When viewed from the Earth's surface, aside from causing power grid failures and communication disruptions, the effects of a nuclear explosion in space could have a certain mesmerizing beauty. As the charged particles resulting from the explosion interact with the Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere, they would create stunning auroras that span vast distances and could persist for several days. So, at least in that aspect, there would be a captivating spectacle to witness.

During the Cold War, the United States and Russia, as global superpowers, conducted nuclear tests in various environments, including on land, underwater, and even inside mountains. They explored almost every possible scenario for detonating nuclear weapons.

Therefore, it is not unexpected that nuclear weapons have been detonated in space before. The United States carried out a total of five space nuclear tests, with the most well-known one, as mentioned by Mulvihill, taking place on July 9, 1962, in the vicinity of the beautiful Pacific island of Hawaii.

Starfish Prime, a nuclear test, was conducted at an altitude of 400km (250 miles) above Johnston Island. It had an explosive yield of 1.4 megatons, approximately 100 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The EMP from the Starfish Prime test affected electrical systems, such as streetlights and phones, even in Hawaii, located 1,450 km (900 miles) away from the detonation. This unexpected impact revealed details about the test that were meant to be kept secret. The resulting red auroras extended over the Pacific Ocean and persisted for a substantial duration of time.

According to Mulvihill, during that period, there were approximately 22 satellites in space, and about one-third of them were rendered inoperable. Among the affected satellites was Telstar 1, the pioneering television communication satellite. Telstar 1, which represented advancements in in the United States, experienced an early failure in orbit, lasting only seven months, due to the impact of the Starfish Prime test.

Subsequently, there was a collective realization that conducting nuclear warhead tests in space was an unwise course of action. As a result, the Outer Space Treaty (OST) was established. Signed in 1967 by the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union, the Outer Space Treaty (OST) has garnered more than 100 signatories. It designates space as a domain available for peaceful activities exclusively. This brought a sense of reassurance to the global community, enabling the utilization of space for beneficial endeavors such as astronomy, space stations, and wireless communication for the following six decades (60 years). So, what factors have since evolved?

Speculation regarding a shift in the state of orbital security emerged when, earlier this year, the chairman of the US House Intelligence Committee, Mike Turner, issued an ambiguous alert regarding a “significant security risk” posed by Russia. Subsequently, media sources started disseminating information suggesting that the perceived danger revolved around the potential presence of a “nuclear weapon in space.”

While the situation is undoubtedly worrisome, Mulvihill emphasizes that there is no need to lose sleep over it. He reassures that as Russia remains a party to the Outer Space Treaty (OST), the deployment of any form of weaponry in space would be unequivocally prohibited and deemed illegal. Additionally, he highlights that, as evidenced by Starfish Prime, nuclear weapons deployed in space do not discriminate their targets. Therefore, any detonation would result in equal harm to Russia, its allies, and other nations.

It would not solely impact systems like Starlink, which provides internet access to numerous countries (presently 75 countries), but also Chinese satellites and those of other nations.

Another potential scenario is the development of nuclear-powered “jammers” by countries. These jammers would utilize nuclear energy to generate signals capable of interfering with, rather than destroying, other satellites.

However, in the grand scheme of things, these actions might simply be a form of geopolitical posturing. Mulvihill suggests that the concept of deterrence revolves around sending messages and attempting to persuade others that one is willing to take such actions, without actually reaching that point. He believes that this psychological perspective likely underlies the current situation. (IPA Service)




The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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