Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Nuclear Potato Cannon

Talk about stuff that goes whoosh, boom, and splat!

A few years ago, while working on my first book, Backyard Ballistics, I had a conversation with Robert Brownlee, a retired physicist who spent his career at Los Alamos National Laboratory. This man was fascinating; a really smart scientist and a proud cold warrior; he had great stories and interesting opinions. He told me about something he built that worked a lot like a spud gun, except, it’s bigger. A lot bigger.

Here’s his story: back in 1957, a group of scientists and engineers at Los Alamos National Laboratory was tasked with reducing the amount of radioactive material expelled into the atmosphere resulting from nuclear testing. Astrophysicist Bob Brownlee was part of this project, code named “Bernlillo.” (other people have told me they believe Bob’s recollection is mistaken, and the project code name was either Pascal or Plumbbob. It’s a minor point.)

Brownlee and his team were researching the feasibility of underground nuclear testing. The Los Alamos team placed a small, (by high energy physics standards), nuclear device in the steel well and capped the well with a big iron and concrete plate. The four foot diameter plate was 4 inches thick and weighed in the neighborhood of half a ton.

A 1995 Department of Energy report called “Caging the Dragon-The Containment of Underground Nuclear Explosions, ” reports Dr. Brownlee as saying, “The guys had been working trying to get (the nuclear device) ready, but there had been a number of troubles. They finally got it down the hole, by my recollection, about ten o'clock or so at night. There wasn't much time to go back to Mercury, go to bed, and get up the next morning to shoot it, so somebody said, "Why don't we just shoot it now, and then go in?"

“And it was the world's finest Roman candle, because at night it was all visible. Blue fire shot hundreds of feet in the air. Everybody was down in the area, and they all jumped in their cars and drove like crazy, not even counting who was there and who came out of the area.”

When the device was exploded, it blew the top off the well. The project leader remembers that,

“We did have a lid on that hole. Nobody's seen it since. We never did find that. There was (also) kind of plug in the hole. . . All it was, was a concrete cylinder with a hole through the center of it, so the detector could look through it. It was suspended from the harness that was holding the bomb. It was a collimator, and we never found that collimator either, and it was about five feet thick.”

Also in 1959, a team of Soviet scientists launched what they claimed to be the first man made object into outer space, the satellite Sputnik. But based on what Dr. Greenlee told me, I still think Sputnik was the second object, beat by an American made, half-ton, steel and concrete well cap, launched into orbit by a plutonium push.

Later this week, I’ll provide reasons why I think this could really be true.


Anonymous said...

Boing Boinged!

Anonymous said...

According to this site:

this myth can be disproven with simple physics.

"But the assumption that it might have escaped from Earth is implausible (Dr. Brownlee's discretion in making a priority claim is well advised). Leaving aside whether such an extremely hypersonic unaerodynamic object could even survive passage through the lower atmosphere, it appears impossible for it to retain much of its initial velocity while passing through the atmosphere. A ground launched hypersonic projectile has the same problem with maintaining its velocity that an incoming meteor has. According to the American Meteor Society Fireball and Meteor FAQ meteors weighing less than 8 tonnes retain none of their cosmic velocity when passing through the atmosphere, they simply end up as a falling rock. Only objects weighing many times this mass retain a significant fraction of their velocity."

The Pathetic Earthling said...

That's really cool. But Sputnik was launched on October 4, 1957. Not 1959.

Anonymous said...

Er, wasn't Sputnik 1 launched in 1957 (not 1959)? I don't know when in 1957
the Los Alamos explosion occurred, but this might not have beaten it even if the lid did go into space.

Anonymous said...

Sputnik was launched in 1957, Bill, not 1959.

Dean W. Armstrong said...

There's more info from Brownlee here:

The big problem getting in the way is the Earth's atmosphere. As Brownlee states, he estimated the object was going 66km/s. That's about as fast as a Leonid meteor.

Anonymous said...*&rnum=3&hl=en#6d79e589555c2a92

Ben said...

It seems unlikely that this would have ended up in earth orbit without any planning. Falling into the sea somewhere (though you'd expect it to get noticed, it being the cold war), burning up on re-entry a few hours later or going off into the solar system might make sense if there was really enough initial velocity.

In any case, wouldn't this burn up on the way up? No one has ever launched anything else from a "space gun" (i.e. full escape velocity at the surface with no thrust after launch); all other launches have given the craft thrust until well after it's out of the denser parts of the atmosphere. To reach orbit, it would need to be travelling a bit faster than a satellite falling down from orbit, and we all know that those tend to burn up if they're not heat shielded.

Also, can a block of concrete withstand near-instantaneous acceleration from rest to escape velocity by a force acting only on its surface without breaking into fairly small bits?

Anonymous said...

It would need escape velocity, otherwise it's orbit would intersect the earths surface. As long as it missed roads and such, I find it unlikely that it would be noticed unless its impact was witnessed, or it hit something. Run the numbers and see what likely range of velocities you get.

Anonymous said...

Sputnik was not claimed to be the first object in 'outer space' -- it was the first artificial satellite. Both the US and the USSR had sent rockets up beyond the 50-mile mark before Sputnik, but they had not achieved orbit.

A plug of concrete traveling as fast as the object captured on film of the Loa Alamos event would have sufficient energy to have made it out of the atmosphere, but was likely travelling fast enough to vaporize before it made it.

Note: World War I artillery had enough theoretical energy to have broken thru the atmosphere, with the correct trajectory. The first man-made object in space may have made it 40 years before your proposed blast.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read the rest of this! Facinating!

I have voted for this on Reddit.

Anonymous said...

See also:

Anonymous said...

Can't find the plug, it must've achieved Earth's orbit! That's the only possible explanation. Maybe that's what Glenn saw when his capsule smashed into that hunk of metal ... maybe DB Cooper has it.

No need to rewrite history just because the Sovs grabbed the better Nazi rocket boys ... let it rest.

Anonymous said...

As has been observed, atmosphere gets in the way. I do recall
a science fiction story of an american astronaught and a Russian
cosmonaught fighting on the moon. One of them (the Russian?) gets
hit in the back of the head by one of his own bullets. The
round had managed a single orbit, launched with perfect angle.
Thats really good shooting and very bad luck...but, without any
atmosphere it would be quite possible. Considering that the air
that protects us is to the Earth what one layer of paint is to
a basketball, we're pretty lucky it's so effective against high
velosity objects.

besides, didn't Ralph Cramdon (of the "Honeymooners")launch his
wife into trans Lunar orbit in the early fifties ?

Silly Old Bear said...

I had this huge sense of Deja-Vu reading this (found you through Boing, Boing btw)

Hasn't this been discussed years ago?

Here's one link of many found by Google

Anonymous said...

Interesting... but even if it wasn't disintegrated by detonation and didn't burn up in the atmosphere, it would have been expelled almost vertically out of the well head. That's the wrong direction to get to earth orbit. I expect it would either achieve escape velocity (doubtful) or fall right back down in the desert somewhere west of the site.

Anonymous said...

Even if it had been propelled off at something else than a vertical direction, and even if it had survived going through the atmosphere, it could not have "achieved orbit". The ejection point equals the perigee here (i.e. where the orbit is closest to the surface of the celestial body). It would have intersected with that point after going around the Earth once (actually it would have fallen short, due to aerobraking). It would have had to make a correction burn in order to avoid that, which -as a purely ballistic object- it obviously wasn't able to do.

Anonymous said...

Concrete's relatively brittle. I'd be suprised if the explosion allone didn't shatter the block into dust. Plus, like others said. the orbital path would intersect with the earth. Though the story may be true, the slug is NOT in orbit and never was.

Anonymous said...

Doing a research like this is really amazing, fun and very informative