Streetwise Professor

August 11, 2019

Did the Petrel Blow Up Real Good?

Filed under: Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 9:02 pm

In Russia, August, not April, is the cruelest month (though July can be pretty bad too). Recent Augusts have been pretty benign, though: no ferry sinkings or rash of drownings or major fires. This year, however, August (and July) appear to be returning to form, with an explosion at a Siberian ammo dump, raging forest fires (again in Siberia), and last week, an explosion at a missile test in Severodvinsk, in far northern Arkhangelsk. This all followed the sinking of a highly secretive submarine in July.

The first announcement of the Severodvinsk event was puzzling. There was a spike of radiation that had people in the area scurrying to pharmacies to get iodine. There was an announcement of an explosion during the test of a rocket engine. But conventional rocket engines don’t release radiation when they explode, so whence the radiation? Upon reading, the only thing I could think of was that there was a mishap in the testing of Russia’s insane nuclear powered Буревестник (Burevestnik or “Petrel”) cruise missile, of which Putin is so fond.

Since the explosion, the Russians have been telling the truth slowly, and although they have not come out and said it was the Petrel (“Skyfall” in Nato nomenclature) that blowed up real good, everything they have said tends to confirm that suspicion. Oh yeah. Seven people died. Not two. And five of those seven, yeah, they worked for Rosatom–Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation. And yeah, there was an explosion in “isotope power source for a liquid-fueled rocket engine.” (Come again?) A nuclear fuel vessel was anchored nearby, and emergency personnel evacuating the injured wore hazmat suits: the ship had been present at the time of a previous test of the Petrel.

The Dvina Bay has been closed due to alleged pollution from rocket fuel, and the Russians claim that the explosion occurred during the testing of a liquid fuel rocket motor, but this does not rule out that the Petrel was involved: conventional rockets would be used to launch the weapon and give it sufficient velocity for a nuclear powered ramjet mechanism to operate. (Though it is interesting that liquid fuel is involved: even the US’s insane nuclear ramjet Project Pluto utilized safer solid fuel rockets for liftoff. Perhaps the use of liquid fuel is not surprising: Russia’s still in development RS-28 Sarmat ICBM is also liquid-fueled.)

Although in a 1 March, 2018 speech Putin touted the missile as having virtually unlimited range, your results may differ. By a lot:

Russia is preparing for a special operation to find a missile that fell into the Barents Sea. This was reported by CNBC. The American television channel refers to intelligence data. Allegedly the missile with a nuclear power plant was lost during the tests in November 2017. The missile launches themselves were conducted four times, from November 2017 to February 2018. In all four cases, it ended in failure. The longest of the tests lasted about two minutes. The rocket flew about 35 kilometers and fell, according to TASS.

There were supposedly “moderately successful” tests (meaning they didn’t blow up, apparently) in late-2018 and January of this year.

In his March, 2018 speech, and in subsequent remarks Putin has betrayed a Hitleresque fascination with wonder weapons like the Petrel and the Poseidon nuclear torpedo. Hitler’s fascination arose from his realization that American and Soviet industrial might and population advantages made the odds against Germany prevailing in man-on-man, plane-on-plane, tank-on-tank combat vanishingly small. Putin’s focus on wonder weapons likely has a similar motivation.

These projects betray an inordinate fear of US missile defenses (if only they were so effective as to negate Russia’s ICBM arsenal–apparently Reagan’s ghost still haunts them), and something approaching panic at the recognition that the gap between American and Russian military potential is widening inexorably. * Falling behind in symmetric competition, Putin and his military establishment are turning instead to competing asymmetrically. These efforts are in the nuclear sphere, because the Russians recognize that nuclear weapons are their only source of strategic power, leverage, and relevance.

Putin’s pets Petrel and Poseidon are thus signals of weakness and doubt, wrapped up in bravado. They are unlikely to change the strategic balance in any serious way, and so far Petrel has evidently been far more dangerous to its developers than its intended targets. Not that you can expect an admission of that anytime soon.

*The use of liquid fuel in the RS-28 ICBM also likely reflects Russian fears of US missile defenses. Defeating missile defenses by using heavy parallel separation warheads requires much greater thrust that is more reliably delivered with liquid-fueled rockets. Reliance on such rockets may also reflect constraints on Russian capacity to produce solid-fueled rockets, due to the lack of critical materials.

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31 Comments »

  1. Oh boy! More nuke mishigoss with Russia. The US flirted with flight and nuclear power many years ago, in several special projects. Look up Project NERVA for some fun times! I also had the pleasure of working on the HTRE reactor security and shut down. Our flirting during the 60s and early 70s, and those in power had the good sense to run the other way from the folderol. While nuclear power is remarkably mass efficient, and highly efficient in density, the thermodynamics of converting all that power efficiently to safe propulsion is a very high hurdle.

    I don’t know what went on up there in Archangel, but a spike in radiation from a long distance monitors is very troubling. Our ability to detect products of fission release is quite good. I would say that Russia thought they were going to get away with no public comment on the whole thing. Maybe we should send them our notes on Pluto, NERVA and HTRE before they really make a mess.

    Comment by doc — August 11, 2019 @ 9:51 pm

  2. @Doc: The Soviet/Russian government never had a problem with contaminating their country in the past…

    YouTube Channel “Curious Droid” has a good mini-documentary on the SLAM missile that would have used the tech developed by project Pluto, NERVA, HTRE et al. He noted that one of the big factors leading to its cancellation was the fact that having such a doomsday weapon was too provocative, and might increase the risk of a Soviet first strike against the USA, just out of fear that such a weapon would ever be launched. I think this is one subject (among many) where we should be very thankful of American strength, since they have little need to fear that a Skyfall would ever be used against them.

    Gotta wonder what the Russian interest in it is though: This idea was too expensive, difficult and dangerous for the USA at even the height of the Cold War. That’s a very high bar to set! There’s gotta be a cheaper domestic propaganda victory available to the Russian government? I mean, I get the Prof’s point that being able to go toe-to-toe with the USA confers status, in their view. But the USA doesn’t even want to risk attacking North Korea, much less Russia, so in practical terms, I don’t see the actual gain for what is surely a quite expensive (and clearly very dangerous) project…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — August 12, 2019 @ 3:25 am

  3. “Putin’s focus on wonder weapons likely has a similar motivation.” he probably has long term fears about those two aggressive empires, the USA and PRC. Happily for Russia the USA has incentivised Russia and the PRC to become friends. But this will eventually prove to be temporary: they are natural enemies. Why? Look at the map.

    I can’t see any reason for the USA and Russia to be natural enemies and accordingly rate US foreign policy as particularly dim-witted.

    Comment by dearieme — August 12, 2019 @ 4:22 am

  4. “I can’t see any reason for the USA and Russia to be natural enemies”
    I think it’s a domestic propaganda thing. The Russian government needs to be able to point to an external enemy to distract from problems at home. Plus their government seeks international status and influence. Acting counter to US interests globally contributes to both goals (though not necessarily to Russian national interests, and the Prof loves to point out in Syria). I mean, Bush and Obama tried to reset relations with Russia, but it just suits Russia to keep up a pretence of adversarial relations. So I don’t think that US foreign policy towards Russia should be judged harshly…

    That said, I think you’re right that China and Russia will eventually fall out: China has much greater economic power and a history of leveraging it. This won’t go over well with Russia, which has similar military power (For now. On paper.) and sees itself as an equal.

    Comment by HibernoFrog — August 12, 2019 @ 7:48 am

  5. Much of the speculation on Russian motivation is outside my general area of expertise. I’m familiar with their history, and of course the cold war years, but peering inside the Assembly, or Duma, or whatever their ‘congress’ is called now, plus Putin’s motivation is beyond my abilities. However, having been in the engineering business for decades, I can comment on that side.

    We have worked with Russia in the distant past on several high energy projects. They are a two-sided coin in the sciences, where one shiny side is their theory, mathematics, and elegance of physics. The other side of the coin is quite tarnished, beaten, chewed and not at all recognizable. This is their engineering. For some odd reason, the physics and math genius absolutely does not translate to engineering, which was my specialty. We, and they realized very early that boiling water reactor technology had the potential to be very great at high atmospheric pressures, but the voids where the liquid changed over to steam cause all kinds of issues with the core, neutron absorption, fast neutron capture, and linear heat control(throttling, if one would allow some simplicity). But still, they went for the gold ring, and kept building BWR thinking that their physics would eventually overcome the actual engineering practicalities. Of course, on the weapons side, we never really had any interest, but having been around Soviet era fighters, I can say they are always 20 years behind the US in aerospace engineering. Some of us may recall their disastrous ‘Concordski’ accident at the Paris air show, many years ago. Things in engineering have not improved over there it would seem.

    Comment by doc — August 12, 2019 @ 10:43 am

  6. @Doc. Your description of the Russians abilities being a two-sided coin is rather interesting. So, a question: as their achievements in science and physics could be attributed to a love of learning for learning’s sake, would their lack of interest in engineering follow-throughs be attributable to a lack of material incentives? It’s hard to get excited about innovation when it’s hard to get a stake in such innovations, and the spoils of one’s labors go to others, or to the state.

    Comment by I.M. Pembroke — August 12, 2019 @ 7:07 pm

  7. This is in part a cultural thing. There are always exceptions of course, but in general Russians prefer the great picture and as much knowledge in the widest area as possible.

    Concentrating on a narrow task and being meticulous and attentive to small detail is boring and usually is being done with less enthusiasm. Cases in point: Russian Yablochkov was one of the early developers of electric lighting; Russian Popov came up with a wireless communication device virtually at the same time as Marconi. None of each has ever become practical while the work of Edison and the same Marconi did change the life on Earth.

    I’ve always heard that you want to hire a Russian for great ideas and insights. But better have a team of Americans (or Germans, or Brits, or French or whatever) to turn the great ideas into practical (and profitable) things.

    Comment by LL — August 12, 2019 @ 7:37 pm

  8. Are Putin and his military on the same page? It is easy to think of Russia as some monolith, but factions within Russia often clash, and express themselves via ‘accidents’.

    Comment by Richard Whitney — August 13, 2019 @ 7:53 am

  9. @IMP; I think that’s well stated. Although there is technically a consumer, or profit-motivated economy in Russia, they are basically +100 years behind the US and many other nations in the ability to profitize elegant theory. An example would be good here. Haptic screens have been around far longer than most people are aware. But – for decades, there was little use, or knowledge of haptic touch utility until the smartphone. Today, no one would use a smartphone without it. The technology advanced by fits and starts for many years, until it just took off! The Russians(nee Soviets) would have left haptic technology at the infant stage back in the late 80s or early 90s. Although it took years, haptic touch technology is now a billion dollar industry(for further reading on how it can go wrong, investigate the Navy’s haptic helmsman mistakes which resulted in a collision and many deaths recently).

    With the Russians, they seem to reach a level of engineering which we call ‘good enough’. I would express it also as a Rube Goldburgian level of fitness. I have been lucky to work on many different types of engineering processes. In almost every case, there were plenty of dead ends along the way which were not pursued as they lead to a non-desirable final product, feature, or poor utility. John Bardeen is my hero(along with William Shockley), in that he kept working on the tri-state ‘diode’for years, until it was the transistor we know today. One can only imagine the number and type of different failures along the way to the current analog or discrete transistor of today. Had it been left to the Russians, we would never have developed the Thyristor, SCR, Shottkey, or other components with semiconducting effect.

    I’ve also noted that this applies across technologies. Having sat in a few MIGs, and comparing them to similar US craft of similar vintage, it’s amazing what utter crap they put up with. We had slaved gyros in the mid-70s, and I’m looking at a front line fighter from early 80s and no slaved gyros! Imagine going into combat with a US fighter and the gyro will tumble as the plane is making extreme motions. Which way is home!? Who knows, we’ll wait for the gyro to settle,,,

    Now, one more thing while I’m on the subject. This is the financial-industrial model that is so popular in the US. Soviets have always been a decentralized nation of regional fiefs. Of course, there was a massive and well defined central authority, but underneath it all was a bunch of wayward little republics, some very far from Mokba doing their own little thing. A company like GM which builds parts of cars all over the world could NEVER have been developed in the Soviet system. And, that carries over today as the former republics have only balkanized more since the Glasnost and Peristroyka. Frex – if GM wants to buy airbag controllers and not develop themselves, they call Delphi, or Bosch, or Motorola, etc. In the Soviet/Russian system, they would develop a spec, then sit down themselves and try to sort it out on a breadboard. Re-inventing the wheel! Which is what happened to the Concordski. They tried to reverse engineer a real Brit Concorde, but didn’t have enough in-depth knowledge of the design elements to make it right.

    Russians will spend days, weeks, months on the most elegant solutions to esoterica. And they will then stop at useful applications for that. It’s interesting that the Soviets put a satellite and a man in space first, but only 12 short years later the US not only surpassed the Soviets, but put the first man on the moon. It cost billions, and was the product of thousands of different vendors, but we did it, and profit-motive was primary in the eyes of Lockheed, McDonnald Douglass, General Atomics, Rocketdyne, Grumman, Fairchild, ad-infinitum.

    Comment by doc — August 13, 2019 @ 6:58 pm

  10. If it’s true that the Russians at the time said “their Germans are better than our Germans” it’s a rare example of Russian humour that makes me smile.

    But, curmudgeon that I am, I expect it’s simply a reversal of an American joke.

    Comment by dearieme — August 14, 2019 @ 4:53 am

  11. Other commenters have made good points so far, but I think I can generalize on them for my own view on why Russian technical achievement is so lopsided. Take a look at what they are good at: technical education, theoretical work, prestige projects like space exploration, and glorious weapons systems like nukes. Then, take a look at what they do poorly: electronic manufacture, automobiles, nuclear reactor operation, and finance. The first list are endeavors that have prestige as a reward. On the second list, success comes from forming a talented and efficient organization, but also the *right kind* of organization. The sorts of people and the organizational structure of a bank is quite different from that of a silicon foundry, and both quite different from the “safety culture” so famously lacking at Chernobyl.

    My conclusion is that Russian political economy is stuck in a zero-sum prestige-hunting game. Top talent chases after an intrinsically limited number of spots in prestigious positions, and the majority that get crowded out comprise wasted human capital. At the same time, the mid-level positions that fill out the staff of real, working tech companies, the lab techs, project managers, experienced purchasing agents, and so on, are poorly served because the population is educated to chase those prestigious positions. The cycle feeds on itself, insofar that, with banks infested with cronyism, top talent can’t fund startups to break free of the winner-take-all dynamic, but without a startup sector that has high ROI, the banks have no way to make money besides…cronyism.

    Comment by M. Rad. — August 14, 2019 @ 12:08 pm

  12. Yup – got to agree with M. Rad. Building 1,000,000 perfectly reliable and safe Zaporoghets(sp?) cars gets no one a parade down the front of Red Square. The commitment by thousands of people to come together for that project just doesn’t exist in Russia. Now Japan, it seems their culture was built for stuff like that, even before Deming robotized them! hehehe…

    Comment by doc — August 14, 2019 @ 2:15 pm

  13. In a former life, I worked on scramjets (I’m an aerospace engineer). Hypersonic drones are powered by scramjets. Scramjets are supersonic combustion ramjets. The big limitation with a conventional scramjet is the chemical combustion process requires too much time. Air is flowing through the scramjet combuster so quickly that it has left the vehicle before energy can be released from the fuel. This requires that fast burning hydrogen be used as fuel rather than a hydrocarbon like kerosene. Unfortunately, not even hydrogen burns fast enough so scamjets typically are limited to Mach numbers no greater than ten (still very fast).

    Now, what if energy were introduced into the air stream by non-chemical means, e.g. through nuclear energy? In theory, a nuclear powered ramjet might have no upper limit to Mach number. An economical single stage to orbit launch system could be a consequence of such a technology.

    Sadly in aerospace, there is always “devil in the detail”. A nuclear powered ramjet was looked at in the 1950s by the US. The radiation problem proved to be intractable and the concept was abandoned. Maybe(?) the Russians are reexamining that old concept. The concept is appealing **IF** the radiation problem could be solved.

    I am confused by hypersonic drones. I do not understand what is their military objective. People say the objective of a hypersonic drone is to strike at an enemy very quickly. An ICBM requires no more than 45 minutes to attack a target on the other side of the Earth from which the ICBM was launched. A suborbital trajectory could be selected where the ICBM’s bus (transfer stage) carrying the reentry vehicles (RV) is skimming just above the atmosphere. A target opponent would not be able to see the RV bus coming until it is almost on top of him. For high casualty sneak attack, an ICBM is unbeatable. Why develop hypersonic drones? Again, I am confused…..

    Comment by Eggplant — August 14, 2019 @ 5:26 pm

  14. @eggplant: could there be any sense in a hypersonic drone carrying a nonnuclear weapon, one where multiple RVs would not be used? An anti-aircraft carrier weapon, for instance?

    Comment by dearieme — August 15, 2019 @ 6:00 am

  15. I will opine that the concept of the Hypersonic drone has it’s origins way back in the threat of Reagan’s SDI technology. The Soviets(and later Russian defense Korbal)believed the hype that Reagan and the US had developed and nearly perfected the SDI dream of hitting all MIRV products of the Soviet ICBMs with space based lasers, or space/terrestrial rockets, or who knows what kind of pie-in-the-sky voodoo technology.

    In a matter of 4-6 short years, we went from an inept Dem empty suit(Carter)to a forceful, nationalist(dare I say), frontman with balls of steel. This at first scared the Soviets into action. Almost their entire land and sea based offensive threat which underpinned MAD was rendered useless, or of limited utility. They began their own investigation on how to one-up the technology. One of those methods was the similar plan that we developed with NERVA(which was a hydrogen fuel, reactor heated propulsion system). As with all things Soviet, they had inklings that we were working on it, and that it could be done, but time, cost, mass, volume were constraints. BTW – our first thermonuclear device weighed many, many tons!

    It would seem the Russians are still trying to develop the anti_SDI solution with a very fast, atmosphere skimming rocket, with a nuclear propulsion core, and maybe a nuclear payload too, which is well developed technology(see Davy Crocket tactical weapon). Hitting a rocket with another rocket becomes increasingly more difficult as speed increases, and size decreases. In terms of fission propulsion, the very things that fission needs to be safe are quite heavy, and removing layers of moderator or absorbing cladding is where things usually go haywire. I suspect that’s what happened in this case, that there was a thermal problem with the propulsion stage, and when it went pear-shaped, then developed a fission problem when the core started to break apart. Best speculation I can do with the limited info avail.

    Comment by doc — August 15, 2019 @ 7:29 am

  16. @M. Rad et al. As an economist, I look for explanations of human behavior (particularly variations in behavior across nations/groups) rooted in incentives. In the US in particular, and also the UK esp. in the early days of the industrial revolution, there was a big payoff to developing commercially viable–and profitable–innovations. And not conceptual innovations–things that actually worked and did stuff. Thus, the payoff to engineering (making stuff that works) has been big in the US. Indeed, the problem has often been finding ways to fund basic science that lacks direct commercial applications. This has continued to the present day.

    Russians are obviously great computer scientists, but they had to come to the US to become wealthy by developing commercially viable applications. The intensely anti-commercial environment of the USSR, and then Russia, precluded their thriving there. If you develop something valuable, the state or some group of thugs will expropriate it. It is almost impossible to capture anything but a trivial share of the stream of rents generated by a well-engineered, commercially valuable innovation. So why bother? You get paid as much (and probably it’s much healthier) if you stick to basic science working in some state institute.

    China is an interesting case. There the state has permitted people to become fabulously wealthy by commercializing products. I have my doubts about the quality of engineering, though, and their comparative advantage seems to be in stealing the engineering solutions developed by others, rather than developing their own.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 15, 2019 @ 10:05 am

  17. “If you develop something valuable, the state or some other group of thugs will expropriate it.”

    FTFY

    Comment by Ivan — August 15, 2019 @ 11:12 am

  18. I remember when Esther Dyson was going over to Russia after the collapse of official Communism, trying to promote Russian tech entrepreneurs. One of her many interesting observations back then was that cultural assumptions there got in the way of a successful business ecosystem. In particular, “profit” had been stigmatized so thoroughly by Communist education and propaganda over many decades that Dyson compared discussing its pursuit openly in Russia to being like Americans discussing sexual perversions openly. That sort of thing will tend to put a damper on commercial innovation, where the underlying assumption is that private profit is a tracer for social value (willingness to pay as far above resource cost as possible).

    Comment by srp — August 15, 2019 @ 7:03 pm

  19. @doc–I agree (and suggested in the post) that the Ghost of Reagan haunts Putin more than 36 years after his “Star Wars” speech. Hell, the speech may have more life in it than the Star Wars movie franchise, which is evidently sputtering,

    I find it remarkable, really. Despite billions of dollars and decades of work, progress on BMD has been painfully slow, and the ambitions have been scaled back from defending against an all-out Soviet ICBM attack to defending against marginal powers like the Norks and Iranians. But nonetheless, it all apparently scares the shit out of Putin and the Russian defense establishment, to the point that they are willing to embrace crazy, and radioactive crazy at that.

    But this demonstrates that Putin et al realize that their one and only claim to relevance and geopolitical influence is nuclear weapons, so any risk of their becoming obsolete poses an existential threat to them.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 15, 2019 @ 10:09 pm

  20. But this demonstrates that Putin et al realize that their one and only claim to relevance and geopolitical influence is nuclear weapons
    The sad thing is, their real claim to relevance may be as an energy supplier to the world’s second-largest economic block

    Comment by dcardno — August 16, 2019 @ 12:30 am

  21. Perhaps they’re worried about even paltry U.S. BMD developments because they have little confidence in actually being able to launch most of their ICBMs on demand.

    Comment by srp — August 16, 2019 @ 7:46 pm

  22. Regarding Russian cultural aversion to profit, I am not so sure it is the effect of propoganda as much as it is the experience of living under cronyism. Even in Tsarist days, one got rich, not by hard work or innovation, but by toadying to the state. Generations have lived in a world where profit really was dirty in every instance they witnessed, while only a minority have seen, or can abstractly imagine, a world where profit is the just reward for the risk attendant in speculative investment or unproven innovations. For a brief period in the post-Soviet 90’s, we saw Russians imitating the Western notion that profits come from arbitrage and innovation, but without the understanding that these profits repesent risk, no one knew how (if they even attempted to) pick the best risk-adjusted ROI. Khordokhovsky quite famously overlooked the risk of government malfeasance when he imitated the form of oil companies that thrive under rule of law.

    China, to the extent it has a trading culture in the coastal cities, has some acculturation with risk premia, insofar that a shipper attempting to arbitrage price between two ports can be ruined by an unfavorable price move or credit default. The sight of a formerly well-to-do shipper getting wiped out points out what those profits are paying for in a way that the peasantry lining under a land-owning gentry never see.

    Comment by M. Rad. — August 16, 2019 @ 11:25 pm

  23. Hi guys, I was blocked for a while. Maybe because I had already posted several times in the same day. Oh well.

    So, this is unfolding much as I thought. It appears to be a chemical asplosion, likely from some issue with the liquid H2 being heated so fast. The metallurgy to handle the rapid and massive temp change in H2(a very small molecule) is pretty esoteric. We had issues with rapid corrosion, and some failures in the piping, and discharge nozzle area from extreme cold(LH2), to extreme hot(during the ‘burn’, I know it doesn’t actually burn, no O2), and then cold soak, then another ignition(I know, it’s not ‘igniting’ sheesh), then cold soak, then again as the motor is switched on and off.

    The specific impulse we achieved was real big, and things were going to go well had the NERVA project continued. We have this article from a Brit ‘research fellow’. I am ashamed to link it here, for the reasons below, which I emailed to “Dr” Corkhill. The mistakes are – egregious, but evaluate for yourself:

    https://theconversation.com/nuclear-powered-missile-accident-in-russia-what-really-happened-121966

    My email to her:

    1) ” Radioactive isotopes are unstable atoms” Uh, how about semi-stable elements with similar chem properties?

    2) ” Russians have developed a mini-nuclear reactor – able to fit inside a missile – that is capable of using radiation to heat the liquid fuel for propulsion. This has never been achieved before.” What? The US developed Project Pluto, and also Project NERVA back in the 1950s, through 70s.

    3) ” A significantly smaller amount of fuel would be required — perhaps a few kilos at most — to lift a missile.” Well, maybe if one were using highly enriched >70% U235 or Pu238 to produce fast neutrons. Seriously? How about > 10Kg minimum.

    4) ” americium-241 – widely used to power smoke detectors” Oh – My – GOD!!! Can you be anymore clueless? Am241 does not POWER a smoke detector, it IS the detector for smoke particles. The ‘smoke detector’ is powered by AC from the house, or by a 9V battery.

    5)” These reactors could use the heat generated from radioactive decay to heat liquid hydrogen fuel. Such a system could theoretically use a solid uranium core, a liquid radioisotope core, or even gaseous uranium to power a missile in flight for long distances. However, none of these technologies have been proven, at least with regard to missiles”. Gaseous U235? Have you figured the pressure/temperature state? Or UF6 slurry? In a rocket motor? Do you understand the 3rd Newtonian law? yikes.

    Where did you get your degree, from a box of cereal? This is the most egregious failure I’ve seen in a long time. And you are a research fellow of nuclear waste? We are doomed. I just have a MS in nuclear engineering, and I would trust you to scrape the radium from a watch face. Seriously, tell your bosses you are unqualified to do anything around nuclear materials. Grab a broom, and take care of the janitorial work.

    sigh,,,,

    Comment by doc — August 17, 2019 @ 8:06 pm

  24. @doc–Sorry. The spam filter is capricious. I liberate your excellent comments when I see they are queued, but sometimes life presses and it takes a while.

    Yes, that article is a joke. There are other issues with it too. I had written a post following up on the story, but wordpress won’t let me post it for some reason. These things always happen on weekends when my host service’s support is not available. Maddening.

    Hopefully that issue will be taken care of soon. But in the meantime, a quick comment. The Russians closed beaches and banned fishing because of the dispersal of toxic rocket fuel due to the explosion. That wouldn’t be hydrogen. Also, why would they say the test was on a radioisotope liquid fuel rocket? Why not just say the fuel was liquid hydrogen? The Russians do not utilize liquid hydrogen in their liquid fueled ICBMs. The R36 ICBM uses dinitrogen tetroxide and heptyl. Most current uses of radioisotope rockets (including ongoing NASA projects) are for relatively low power applications, with capacities measured in kW not thousands of MW like Nerva.

    All in all, the Russian’s story doesn’t fit together.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 17, 2019 @ 10:19 pm

  25. Oh no worries professor. I didn’t take it personal.

    Well, If not H2 as I was thinking(ala the NERVA setup), it would be some hypergolic goo that actually does ‘burn’. But then, why have a nuclear core to heat it? I’m beginning to think that they were messing with a regular rocket, but had a nuclear payload. Which of course, would be COMPLETELY ILLEGAL! If the hypergolic fuel of the rocket got away from them, and asploded, then it could have leaked the nuke payload, without a complete fission event. But – it would be a very low yield fizzle not to create a easily detected event. Maybe only 2-3% fission product yield? However, this theory doesn’t square with the known project goal of ‘nearly unlimited range and time aloft’. Hmmmmm

    Lets say they did have a projectile type Little Man payload on board, with maybe 10Kg of fast U235 SNM. A 2% fizzle would be 200g reaction, and the ‘gun’ didn’t fire into the receiver. That’s still gonna be a hella big boom. And, that will produce the kind of secondary contamination from the partial products of the fizzle fission event.

    Alternately, it could be an ion thrust type, but that’s not going to have any combustible fuel except for the lift package as Ion thrust doesn’t provide enough specific impulse to overcome sea level gravity. So, maybe a two stage deal with hypergolic first stage, Ion thrust second stage, where the cations are supplied by a nuclear source(I’m really stretching here). There’s no way a Poodle rocket is going to keep any kind of payload in Earth skimming mode, unless there have been mega strides in Poodle spec impulse recently. It just doesn’t have the stones to generate enough Newtons.

    I know nothing about the history of ion thrust except the Russians I think put some kind of ion thrust orbiter up 30-40 years back. Doubt it was nuke powered though. Haven’t heard back from “Dr” Corkhill. doubt I will. That was shameful.

    Comment by doc — August 18, 2019 @ 1:47 pm

  26. @doc–Could be. I think it was a Petrel–a nuclear reactor on top of a liquid rocket booster necessary to give it the speed for the nuke ramjet to kick in. The radioisotope rocket story is just BS IMO. The booster went kablooie and spewed radioactivity all over the place.

    I can’t think of any other story to explain radioactivity + a rain of toxic rocket fuel.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 18, 2019 @ 4:16 pm

  27. @doc–“Dr. Cornhole” would be more accurate.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 18, 2019 @ 4:22 pm

  28. The Russians are afraid of America? So am I.

    Comment by Julian Felsenburgh — August 19, 2019 @ 8:37 am

  29. Salutations to Eggplant above, it appears he was the closest to the gold ring. Latest theory I’ve heard now is that it was indeed a two stage process. First stage would be a chemical conventional rocket. Most likely hypergolic, or possibly a solid fueled lift stage. Following that, the lift rocket would be discharged, and a nuclear heated ramjet would take over.

    This would fit all the fault modes, and the mission as defined by Putin. The chem explosion would leave a trail of toxic waste around the area. The pressure wave would also cause a lightly shielded reactor to be damaged enough to cause some spikes in local radiation. The injuries and fatalities could be a function of either or both chemical, and radiological origin.

    Then, once we get up to 40k+ feet altitude, the reactor heats up, expands the incoming air, and pressurizes it out the tailpipe. Now, I’m not too much up on the early versions from the US, but HTRE preceded both Pluto and NERVA. It would appear the erstwhile Russians have really gone old school on this job. Wiki tells me we actually flew one of the reactors around in a big azz plane back in the 50s, but we never developed thrust for propulsion. Pluto/HTRE hybrid is maybe the most likely design.

    Theoretically, the reactor running a ramjet, either direct air cycle, or through a turbine cycle jet. It seems either of these processes would keep the craft up for days, weeks, months, potentially years in Earth skimming mode. Now, knowing what I suspect about the US and our military-industrial complex, we’re likely 10 years or more ahead of the Ruskies. Trump, almost confirmed this with one of his tweets last week.

    Comment by doc — August 19, 2019 @ 8:52 pm

  30. As to why the Russians are so terrified of any form of US missile defence, even the minimal defence provided by courrent missile defence technology, a good friend of mine was a US observer for SALT I and SALT II, part of her remit was to observe fabrication and transport of Soviet ICBMs from construction to placement. As she said to me, the Russians were producing missiles like the SS-18 Satan (R-36) in factories, then loading these liquid fueled missiles into unheated train carriage for shipment to their silos in the middle of winter.

    She suspects most would explode on launch.

    Comment by Andrew — August 20, 2019 @ 5:37 am

  31. The reason to go to hypersonics is so as to be able to make large & frequent course changes, low down (i.e. upper atmosphere), at high speed (M5-20). These would be sufficient to overcome an ABMS system in a way that manoeuvring MIRV would be unable to do so, cost-effectively. A manoeuvring MIRV will not have enough ability to make large course changes, and will not be able to do this often enough, because it is reliant on only impulse forces and cannot have the benefit of aerodynamic forces.

    The primary motivation for this (from the Russian, and Chinese perspectives) is that they consider that ultimately the ‘conventional’ (i.e. missiles/hittiles) US ABMS effort will be sufficiently effective to allow the US to face down both continent-scale first-strike and second-strike threats. A secondary motivation is that they consider that already the : US and NATO (UK/FR/IT, via Aster 30 block 1 (for IRBM) & 2 (for ICBM)) and Israeli ABM achievements are sufficient to give localised ABM defences against both conventional & nuclear warheads. They know they have to pursue the counters to these US/NATO/Israeli technologies long in advance of fielding them. Another point is that in due course they anticipate laser technologies being sufficiently effective against ballistic warheads that one needs to get down into the upper atmoshphere and manoeuvre a lot.

    (As an aside the Western motivations for pursuing hypersonics are to an extent slightly different, though to an extent overlapping.)

    In all circumstances this is an economics of defence/aggression issue. Again, I think some of the other posters are spot on – this suggests that the numbers of viable ICBMs from a Russian launch is quite low, and that the Russians are fully aware of this, i.e. they know they cannot go down a ‘just overwhelm the defences’ pathway. Ditto for China by the way.

    As to what exactly went bang, my suspicion is it was a conventional first (boost) stage, then a nuclear ramjet, as others have surmised. From some of the reporting they talk about casualties “being blown into the water”. That suggests to me that the device exploded during handling & preparation & fulling operations prior to launch, whilst humans were close to the device itself. Whether it was the first or second stage, or some of the loading/fuelling/handling kit that went wrong is not clear.

    Comment by dspp — August 23, 2019 @ 4:35 am

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