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Can a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere be an effective weapon to destroy satellites?

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A simulation developed by Chinese researchers shows that the cloud of radioactive debris could cause severe failures in spacecraft moving around it, and even lead to their destruction.

Researchers at the Northwest Nuclear Technology Institute in China have developed a computational model that can assess the performance of weapons anti-satellite nuclear weapons with unprecedented detail and precision. The simulation suggests that a nuclear warhead of only 10 megatons (equivalent to the energy released in the explosion of 10 million tons of TNT) could create a serious threat to satellites if it explodes at an altitude of 71 km above the Earth’s atmosphere, reported this Thursday South China Morning Post.

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According to the computer experiment, the first to have studied the possible use of nuclear weapons against satellites In the Earth’s atmosphere, a moderate nuclear explosion at that relatively low altitude can convert air molecules into radioactive particles and produce a cloud, with a total mass much greater than the bomb itself, that could rise in five minutes to an altitude of almost 500 km. The cloud created could spread at a speed of up to 2.3 km/s over an area as large as the entire state of New York, in the USA, and would be a huge trap for the satellites that were the target of the attack.

“The strong residual radiation of the debris cloud could cause failures in spacecraft moving in the such as satellites, or even direct damage leading to their destruction,” the researchers, led by nuclear physicist Liu Li, said in an article published Saturday in He Jishu/Nuclear Techniques.

Simulations prior to this one, based on detonations at much higher altitudes, often indicated that nuclear weapons would be ineffective and too dangerous for an anti-satellite mission. In the first place, because due to the lack of air, a large number of clouds would not be produced, with which its destructive power would be limited

, lower than that of the current model.

In addition, the high-energy particles generated would be captured mostly by the Earth’s magnetic field and would be dispersed throughout the planet as a ‘radiation belt’, which would indiscriminately threaten spacecraft that were not part of the initial objective of the mission, affecting its specificity as a weapon. However, according to the new computational model, after an explosion most of the ionized molecules in the air would fall to Earth, avoiding the ‘radiation belt’ effect and significantly reducing the risk to other satellites or spacecraft.

Starlink in the crosshairs

Chinese military investigators recently considered the case of SpaceX’s Starlink communication network as a potential threat to their country’s security. They fear that these satellites could provide communication services to rival powers or ‘suicide’ crash into Chinese space stations or satellites to disable their space infrastructure during a war.

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The use of conventional missiles would have a limited range to destroy low-cost satellites operated by Starlink

. Although for this purpose it has been suggested to attack some targets that generate debris, which in turn would hit other satellites and create more debris (as in a chain reaction), the idea collides with the problem of keeping that debris away from the ‘satellites’. friends’.

Potential uses

South China Morning Post interviewed a Chinese rocket scientist, who claimed that the simulation it does not mean that China intends to use that as a weapon. “International law has prohibited the testing or use of nuclear weapons, both in space and in the atmosphere,” said the researcher, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue. Under that condition, he explained that the results apply not only to satellites, but also to hypersonic weapons

, many of which they are designed to fly at altitudes close to outer space, so they could enter the target range of those nuclear weapons.
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