Incoming: The Chicxulub Impactor, Part 6 ― Now What? By Stephanie Osborn

Incoming: The Chicxulub Impactor, Part 6 ― Now What? By Stephanie Osborn


In the last 600 million years, at least 3 large asteroids have impacted Earth, sufficient to generate craters of order 100km (60mi) across or greater. These are Chicxulub (in Yucatan, Mexico), Popigai (in Siberia, Russia), and Manicouagan (in Quebec, Canada).


Popigai Crater, Russia


Manicouagan Crater, Quebec, Canada


All three have been considered for the causes of mass extinctions.

As we saw last time, even older extinction events may have impactors as the cause. This includes the so-called “Great Dying,” the Permian-Triassic extinction event, which may relate to an unconfirmed impact crater in Wilkes Land, Antarctica.

There are many more very large structures and suspected structures that we may never know about, because of their locations―in the deep ocean basins, like the Eltanin iridium anomaly, three miles deep in the south Pacific basin off the tip of South America, discovered by core drilling. Or under the polar ice caps, like that Wilkes Land anomaly in Antarctica; the few places where rock outcrops can be seen in the Wilkes Land feature don’t display impact ejecta layers, which argues against the hypothesis. But the anomaly exists, and is still being debated.

What does all this mean?

It means that Chicxulub ISN’T unusual. It isn’t a one-of-a-kind event. It’s a semi-regular occurrence on geological timescales. It means figure out what to do NOW, while there’s time, because it IS gonna happen again. No “might.” No “maybe.” It WILL happen again.

If we let it.

The general consensus of the community is that a 60km (37mi) diameter impactor would “kill” Earth―would, as one of my favorite film characters noted, “wipe out all life on this little planet.”

The good news? That’s big enough for us to see it coming now.

The bad news? An asteroid doesn’t have to be a planet-killer to do a lot of damage.

What do I mean?


The Chelyabinsk bolide was only an estimated 20m (66ft) in diameter, and it was coming in at a very shallow angle to the ground. Had it come in at a steeper angle, closer to vertical, it would probably have hit the city and wiped it out. Even had it still detonated as an air blast, the shock wave would have come straight down, hit Chelyabinsk, and flattened it. This was “only” an estimated 600kt-equivalent explosion. Such an event is often called a city-killer.


And we never even saw the Chelyabinsk asteroid coming.

Why not?

Speed, size, and reflectivity.

These things are very small as such things go―a few meters’ diameter―and they’re moving like a bat out of hell. The Chelyabinsk asteroid was moving at about 20km/s. In day-to-day terminology, that’s ~60,000-69,000km/hr (40,000-42,900mph)! They’re dark, dusty, and don’t reflect sunlight very well, and they have no light of their own. They’re durn near impossible to see. The usual method of detecting asteroids is to take long-exposure sky photographs and look for short streaks of light as the asteroid moves. But if it’s coming right AT you, it’s going to be a point of light, not a streak, indistinguishable from the background stars until it’s too late!


So assuming you SEE it coming, what do you do with it once you’ve found it?

Well, what you do NOT do―Hollywood notwithstanding―is blow it up with a nuke. That just turns it into a shotgun blast instead of a slug. Either will kill you.

What you DO…is move it. Just a nudge. It doesn’t really take that much.

Dr. Travis S. Taylor and I wrote in detail about this sort of thing in A New American Space Plan, and I do highly recommend checking out that book. But there are quite a few ways of moving an asteroid into a new orbit, some harder than others, some requiring a bit more advance warning, but all within our current levels of technology to accomplish.

The easiest is a game of interplanetary pool. Shoot a rocket at it, whose payload is a big dense hunk of rock or metal, on a precise trajectory designed to knock the thing into a known orbit that is NOT going to hit Earth―preferably into a non-Earth-crossing trajectory, though that might take a couple of shots to do. Of course, if it’s a rubble pile, that might just knock it to pieces and put us back in shotgun-blast territory.

So other options include nukes detonated ALONGSIDE, to nudge it; mounting a rocket engine directly on it; parallel the rocket engine alongside and use the exhaust to nudge it; attach a solar sail to it…you get the idea here. And I haven’t even exhausted the options yet.

But there are two gotchas: We have to know it’s coming, and we have to be able to get to it. If we don’t have those two things, well. It’s gonna get awfully messy, awfully fast.

And like I said, it IS coming. Sooner or later, astronomers are going to point and yell, “INCOMING!”

And we’d better be ready when that happens.


For more details, check out INCOMING! The Chicxulub Impactor by Stephanie Osborn on Kindleand Nook. 


or alternately try out her fiction: Sherlock Holmes and the Mummy’s Curse.






70 thoughts on “Incoming: The Chicxulub Impactor, Part 6 ― Now What? By Stephanie Osborn

  1. I have read that, on average, a rock bigger than a garbage truck passes closer than the Moon about once a month. We don’t notice most of them.

    Any rock that does not come within 500 kilometers of the surface just flies on past. This time around, anyway. That is a tiny, tiny target, BUT — the Solar System has billions of bullets, and never gets bored with the game.
    Dayna: “Don’t you ever get tired of being right all the time?”
    Avon: “No, I get tired of other people being wrong.”

    1. I have an app on my phone that lets me track close approaches by known, named asteroids; I got it this past summer. So far, nothing has come closer than around a million miles. It’s kind of fun to watch, actually. And I can get an overhead view or a 3D view from almost any angle.

      But yes, it’s the small ones that pose the biggest danger, like the Chelyabinsk asteroid. They’re too small and/or in the wrong location to get much in the way of reflected light, so you don’t see ’em coming.

      1. “I have an app on my phone that lets me track close approaches by known, named asteroids”

        What a weird time to be alive. Lazarus Long pulls a cylinder from his pocket and, after a sharp inhale exclaims “whew, that was a close one!”

  2. Gee, if only we had a Luna base to track such things along with a supply of cheaply orbital rocks to toss at ’em!

    Or asteroid mining vessels on patrol to shift and strip them of any valuable material. (But the interplanetary environment!)

    1. We already track the ones we know about. And we’re actively looking for more. We don’t require a lunar base to do that. But yes, a lunar base would be useful for avoidance and mining. We need a full Earth/Moon system infrastructure, which to my mind, would include:
      a LEO space station;
      an L1 space station;
      a nearside lunar base;
      a farside lunar base;
      an L2 commsat in a lissajous orbit;
      shuttles between Earth/LEO/L1 Station/Luna Nearside/Luna Farside;
      ships capable of accessing the Earth/Moon system Trojan asteroids (yes, those are a thing);
      ships capable of rendezvousing with Earth-crossing asteroids and towing them into the Trojan regions for mining.
      This would not only protect us from Earth-crossers/impactors, but give us several different mining facilities, astronomical observing platforms (the better to find NEW potential impactors, as well as other types of astronomical observations), general planetary defense, offworld manufacturing, and more.

      1. Now, the above suddenly sounds like something “at least one of us here” might like to read about at more length… somewhere on the other side of what could be a rather long writing pipeline?

  3. > Chelyabinsk

    During the early 1970s the tension between the USSR and the PRC was quite high. And then various detection systems picked up what they thought was an atomic bomb blast near the China/Russia border. Nixon called the military to alert and wanted to know exactly where the blast had occurred, and the Pentagon, CIA, and NRO all reported they couldn’t even verify an explosion had taken place, much less where.

    As I recall it was the seismic systems that reported the “unmistakeable” trace of an atomic bomb blast, but none of the radiation detection systems showed anything untoward.

    Given that they didn’t go for each others’ throat, I assume neither the Chinese nor the Russians were able to figure out what happened either. Now that things are more open, it would be interesting to find out what the situation looked like from ground zero…

    1. That’s actually happened several times, but yes, I know the event of which you speak. The first time it happened (I think that was the one), they were indeed clued in by the lack of radiation… but not after going to at least DEFCON 2, possibly 1. After that, they studied up and learned what to look for. Now that we have lots of ability to detect such things, we know that we get those pretty frequently.

      Did you know that meteoric dust is a significant component of common house dust? After all, the ablated material has to go someplace…

    2. Nukes vs rocks is also helped by high speed visual observation. A nuclear detonation has a distinct double flash although the timing is in the millisecond range. The Vela satellites ( ) had an instrument that measured brightness changes in a very high speed (millisecond or shorter ) scale which combined with the Gamma and Xray detectors were intended to make an absolute determination. Their coverage was 100% though.

        1. Understood. Had a clearance for a while myself. Not a DOE Q or anything related to CNWDI (Critical Nuclear Weapons Design Information). I would NOT want that stuff in my head. There’s a bunch
          of subjects I do avoid. As time goes on I remember less of the details so I can’t expose it anymore but I still avoid it lest my memory dish up something I have forgotten is classified. All my knowledge of atomic stuff comes from public sources. Growing up in the 70’s and 80s those things fascinated me like a snake allegedly fascinates a bird. Excessive curiosity combined with an efficient memory sticks all sorts of weird junk in my memory :-).
          And last sentence should have said
          Their coverage was not 100%,
          meaning that of the Velas. Although I think they stuck bhangmeters (the high speed light sensors) on other hardware surreptitiously. Because unless you tweak the orbits you can know when no Vela was line of sight and test. There was an incident in the deep South Atlantic in 1979 which to this day no one knows who it was but it did have the double flash. Suspicion was perhaps it was a South Africa test (they had nuclear weapons for a while) but they deny it to this day even after they dismantled their weapons.

      1. IIRC the double-flash thing is a feature of an in-air explosion; the initial flash of the bomb ‘debris’ (the core, chemical-explosive fireball, etc.) getting first absorbed by the nearby air (which ionizes and takes up most of the energy, blocking the ‘light’ of the core inside) and then re-radiated (as the fireball, made up mostly of air, expands and brightens) — with the length of the dimmer period in between being closely related to the yield of the explosion — thus the “bhang meter” (which seems to be some kind of bomb-geek pun or in-joke).

        And ISTR some of the (by now many) various models of GPS satellites have also carried such fast-acting light detectors.

        The expansion rate of a *late* fireball can also be related to the yield of the bomb, and rather accurately, if I’m remebering that article well too, it’s simple scaling laws cleverly applied. (There was a certain amount of military consternation at this, since the exact output of an explosion is not supposed to be advertised, but all you need is one of those once-ubiquitous fireball “movies” and a little work using simple math!) And no, I can’t recall either the specific article or the exact relations right now, that would be far too useful I guess…

        In-space explosions look *very* different, more like a glow that lasts, see for instance search terms like “Starfish Prime test” (which results in lots of nice weird-looking pictures and such).

        And I can say all of the above quite blithely, since I have never had any kind of security clearance or access to such material…

  4. Actually, about the only practical means of diverting an asteroid is through the use of nuclear bombs. Detonated at a suitable distance from the Asteroid!
    Since most asteroids are now thought to be a loosely bound mass of rubble, with perhaps one or more larger “nuggets” to provide a nucleus for the rest of the materiel to accumulate onto, attempting to attach a rocket to it would be Useless! Attempting to hit it with a fast moving “bullet ” to deflect it would also almost certainly fail since the “bullet” would likely either disperse the asteroid into its component parts without changing the trajectories enough to miss earth, or simply punch a hole through it!
    The x-ray pulse from a nuclear detonation would irradiate the outer layers, and cause them to vaporize into vapor on one side, causing a reaction to gently push the asteroid to one side. If for some reason the asteroid broke up, the x-ray pulse from a nuclear explosion would still be effective on the individual chunks, perhaps even more effective, given the larger surface area of the individual pieces.
    Some of the other ideas would work if enough advance warning was given to prepare decades long efforts costing tens of billions of dollars, (or more) and the development of advanced lasers, light sails, spaceships…
    Given the uncertainty of an actual impact from a object decades in the futurr, and the cost of mounting a multi year effort, I strongly suspect that any such attempt at diverting an asteroid will be a last minute affair, and quite frankly, only nuclear explosives are likely to work.
    Given just a few months of time, an emergency effort should be able to launch suitably shielded mulpital warhead, able to intercept the asteroid far enough out to divert it. I really don’t see any other effective means of doing so with today’s technology and the extreme cost and lead time for any other solution.
    Now if we developed a deep space industrial infratstructure, then other solutions and technologies are likely to be effective, and perhaps even cost effective.

    1. Would microwave radiation be effective? Would solar powered orbital microwave projectors have sufficient output to slag those incoming chunks?

      Asking for a friend. Pay no attention to the microwave towers in my back yard, those are just for a science fair project from when I was a kid.

        1. “Orbital Mine Control Lasers”

          More seriously, a strong laser could kick off the rubble gradually and push the larger chunks by vaporization. Enough time could scatter it all over.

        2. I am not sure those would pack the necessary punch; it is probably a better idea to use them in a phased array to maximize their effect: phasers.

          Photon torpedoes, anyone?

    2. Not true. There are numerous means within our current capabilities of moving an asteroid. I go into it in my ebook INCOMING! and Travis Taylor and I went into it in even more detail in A New American Space Plan.

      In fact, given that nukes are made with the idea of in-atmosphere detonation. exo detonation (and for that matter, the ability of the ICBMs on which they’re placed to continue in exo enviro), the notion of a detonation in space is under question.

      1. Stephanie at least for low earth orbit we know the nukes work there are 6 US and 3 Soviet orbital tests highest altitude is 539 miles. But yeah long duration space flight is a unique environment that the weapons were never designed for. On top of that there’s a fair bit of cosmic radiation (High speed particles). That hits metal and you get a cascade of all sorts of particles. If it kicks out neutrons it could be a bad day. Alternately a lot of the implosion process is dependent on precise timing that is dependent on assorted electronics. Fry some of the electronics and you may get no explosion or a fizzle because the compression isn’t right.

        One thing I’d heard of is if you have lots of time just hit the object on one side with some high albedo powder. In the right place you get some interesting effects from uneven heating and uneven light pressure. It doesn’t take much to make a miss. Certainly worth a shot of avoiding something big (Like Apophis in 2029, which misses by about 1/2 lunar distance and is estimated at > 300m) hitting. Of course screw it up and you might take a miss and make it a hit some time down the road.

        1. High albedo OR low albedo, either one would work. What you want to do is to create a difference between that area and the rest of the surface, such that the light pressure from the Sun does the job for you.

          Other options include a laser placed in a trajectory paralleling the asteroid, a solar reflector in the same trajectory, a solar sail attached to the asteroid, a small ion engine attached to the asteroid, on and on and on. And given that we’ve landed on an asteroid, and we’ve orbited an asteroid, these are not things that are in any wise impossible.

          Nukes are not required. Certainly if we could get one there and detonate it properly NEARBY, then it would help. But it is far from our only option.

          1. …it’s also important to note that, Hollywood plots notwithstanding, this is probably NOT a manned mission, nor would it be desired. So the launch thrust required goes down significantly.

            1. Awwww. So no betting pools on how long till the plucky grad student gets bumped off? Spoil sport. (Thank you, Sci-Fy channel, for opening up at least one grad-student position per movie.)

              1. Ahh Graduate students. Known exception to the 13th amendment and perfect red shirt substitute.
                Q: Why do scientists perform experiments on their graduate students instead of rats?
                A: Because no one becomes emotionally attached to a graduate student.

                The last is not absolutely true. My wife was the last PhD graduate student for her professor. He and his wife were very gracious and we were treated like favored children or grand children while they lived.
                But that seemed NOT to be the norm.

                1. no one becomes emotionally attached to a graduate student.

                  Grad students are ephemeral — they are only going to be around a year or two — and they are on the verge of becoming competition. Your wife* not withstanding, why would anyone like one?

                  *It is likely because she was her professor’s last grad student that he was able to be so supportive. Often, approaching the conclusion of a stage of life. we become maudlin.

          2. The big advantage of nuclear explosives is, of course, the truly amazing energy-to-mass ratio, the “bang for the pound” — and with a good (or even decent) way to turn that into impulse given to the rock involved, that might be a real edge, measured by lower total mass delivered to the diverted asteroid / whatever.

            But having “a good way” means developing such a method and testing it and knowing it will work… which could be much harder and /or more expensive. (There are now Hall ion engines that run on magnesium, for instance, not rare noble gases, so perhaps one day the reaction mass could be mined from the rock itself).

            Even if a nuclear “bang” turned out to be the way to go, the bomb itself wouldn’t likely look much like an ICBM weapon. The experience of the (still largely classified) “Orion” project has a lot to suggest about that, even the parts of it that have “come out” (see especially George Dyson’s book). Rather than just firing off a bomb nearby and using radiation to heat and boil off (ablate) the surface of the object, it’s possible to confine the energy inside a “radiation case” (much like an H-bomb uses to implode and detonate the fusion core) and dump it into a disk (say) of iron or other dense material — so you end up with a directed “jet” that hits the object directly (and maybe much more predictably). And doing such a deflection in multiple “shots” would seem to have many advantages…

            Hollywood all aside, this is something that really ought to be learned in some careful, incremental, accumulative way. (Isn’t there a mission coming up called Double Asteroid Redirection Test, that might be just what it says?)

            Unless and until we wait (too) long enough that only drama will save us, of course… (so, let’s not?!?).

  5. I once saw an incoming … this was about 1992ish when I was living in the sticks north of Los Angeles. Got home in the wee hours and since it was already that time, was trudging back from getting the newspaper, and gawking at the night sky…

    …suddenly at about 60 degrees elevation I saw first a brilliant sun-sized disk, then superbright total whiteout. All in the space of perhaps two seconds.

  6. By the way, I wish to thank you for your book(s) on Science!
    They give a very good overview of the subject, and your Internet links allow one to get further into subject if one Desires!
    I have been Interrested in the Alvarez impact theory since it was first proposed, and tried to follow the science and ideas as they emerged, and I thank you for putting it all together in one place for me.
    I must admit, I haven’t got your “A New American Space Plan” with Travis Taylor, something I will immediately remedy, it is raining, and I don’t do Black Fridays, so I need something to do other than troll the internet for something to Do!

    P.S. That’s trolling as in fishing, not being a troll!

        1. it is actually the first time I read work you did btw. Knew of Doc (Warp Speed etc and Rocket City Rednecks), and came at it from that way. Oh look, she has books about Sherlock Holmes! the rest is history
          I too far behind my BTBR list so I’ve some catching up though. I’m a few behind. Lost some reading time in life.

    1. Thank you most kindly! I do enjoy putting them together, although it’s quite a bit of work to research the subject matter thoroughly enough to suit myself on the matter. And I always seem to leave out something. Worse, there’s always research going on, so invariably something important comes out within about 6mo of my releasing the things. Eventually I’m going to a) go back and update all of ’em to second editions, b) collect them all up and put them out as a compendium print edition.

      If you like my science writing, do please be sure to check out my fiction as well! I generally use my science background to write those, and even when it looks like I’m writing space opera or the like, I’ve generally gone back and worked out the scientific basis for whatever typical “handwavium” I’m using, so for me and my books, it ceases to be handwavium.

    1. Absolutely! We should be spread out over 14, 15 planetary systems for making sure that no surprising yet inevitable cluster of catastrophes (solar storms, asteroids, communism, massive volcanic eruptions, “this time we’ll get socialism right”, plague) can wipe us out!

        1. I think a lot of people underestimate what it would take to have viable off planet settlements that could handle not having the grocer (earth) send things along for delivery. On the other hand, I think maybe more overestimate it too.

  7. Agreed! But we don’t have any yet. We do have plenty of nuclear weapons!
    I can’t think of a better use for them.
    In the future, we may have a space based infra structure capable of building and deploying space based lasers and masers powerful enough to divert an asteroid, or huge mirrors that could concentrate enough solar light to alter its course, or other solutions as yet unknown! I sure hope so for a lot of reasons! Including solar power satellites, and moving polluting mining and manufacturing industries off planet!
    I remember the later Gemini missions, and Apollo, and I so wanted to go to the planets as an explorer if not a colonist! The hope that Skylab would be the first of many, the space shuttle the beginning of cheap space launchers. All dreams smashed on the bureaucracy of NASA, and lack of congressional interest!
    I read every thing written that I could find by Jerry Pournelle and a hand full of other space advocates, and I still have a hard time believing we have accomplished so little in space!
    But with SpaceX and perhaps Blue Horizons, things may be changing!
    Perhaps we may get solar power satellites, and a space based industry that will belatedly make those dreams come true!
    By the way, pardon my garrulousness, it’s cold, and wet, and I’m bored! All my friends and family all seem to be out shopping, or travelling!

    1. We DO have the capability. We do have the ability to get there, provided we start early enough. We do have the ability to get there FAST even if we start a bit late. What we seem to lack is the political will to do so.

      BTW I worked for NASA and DoD for more than two decades. I’m sorry, but the problems do NOT lie with NASA, but with Capitol Hill, who yanked NASA’s direction all over the map — I watched it happen. BTW it was Nixon who smashed it; he resented JFK for political reasons and ensured that he canceled Apollo as soon as he decently could, after getting in office. The rock of shipwreck was not named NASA but Nixon.

      1. Okay, so WordPress is not putting replies where they are supposed to go. This was supposed to address Mahlon Riggs’ comment below that begins with, “Agreed! But we don’t have any yet. We do have plenty of nuclear weapons!”

        1. A decade ago, NASA’s main web page was all about saving the Brazilian rain forest.

          I got the strong impression nobody at NASA realized those forests were the property of a different country that didn’t give a damn what NASA, or the USA for that matter, thought of what they were doing..

      2. Nixon did kill Apollo, but that was over almost 50 years ago. (December 1972 was Apollo 17, Apollo 18-20 cancellation probably well before that). The big issue have been

        1) no clear goal(s) for more than one administration (if even that)
        2) Congress treating NASA as a giant pork trough.
        3) Some Administrations view NASA as using up funds for other things (I’m looking at you Clinton and Obama and perhaps the Bushes too). This is the whole why are we going to the moon when people are (Starving, lack health care, need phone access, need Internet access) nonsense.
        4) After Challenger and Columbia NASA has gone so risk averse it can not make progress

        Number 1 is part of what made the Shuttle such a nightmare. as it got requirement upon requirement piled on it and then randomly jerked away it became a giant white elephant. This kills us in military procurement too. These attempts to have a single unified all purpose jet like the F35 (A,B,C) is some of the same madness
        Number 2 mixed with 1 is why 6 years after PDR (Preliminary Design Review) there is nary an actual piece of hardware for the SLS. It’s predecessor Ares failed for the same reason. Lots of pork spread across all sots of districts but little useful progress. I’ll be honest my suspicion is SLS has less than a 25% chance of ever flying anything anywhere.
        Number 3 again combined with lack of guidance/goals gets us stupid stuff like NASA being a public relations division. Money is appropriated but the Executive officer names heads to NASA that do useless non technical activities.
        Number 4 impedes using commercial space assets such as SpaceX
        Dragon. Dragon Cargo has been to the Space Station 18 times successfully (with one falcon 9 failure). Between lack of funding and what seems to be distinct distaste for SpaceX Dragon the work for Dragon Crew/ Dragon 2 has been nearly wholly dependent on SpaceX/Musk funding.

        My own opinion is that NASA should likely return to the research only position it had in the NACA days. Vehicles and flights should be bought from commercial sources as fixed cost contracts. The market is there, make Boeing and others work for it. No more Cost or Cost Plus work except for early development. But that will never get through congress each greedy member of which wants some of that lovely money for their district, let alone idiots like AOC who are the modern equivalent of Senator Proxmire.

  8. Agreed! But we don’t have any yet. We do have plenty of nuclear weapons!
    I can’t think of a better use for them.
    In the future, we may have a space based infra structure capable of building and deploying space based lasers and masers powerful enough to divert an asteroid, or huge mirrors that could concentrate enough solar light to alter its course, or other solutions as yet unknown! I sure hope so for a lot of reasons! Including solar power satellites, and moving polluting mining and manufacturing industries off planet!
    I remember the later Gemini missions, and Apollo, and I so wanted to go to the planets as an explorer if not a colonist! The hope that Skylab would be the first of many, the space shuttle the beginning of cheap space launchers. All dreams smashed on the bureaucracy of NASA, and lack of congressional interest!
    I read every thing written that I could find by Jerry Pournelle and a hand full of other space advocates, and I still have a hard time believing we have accomplished so little in space!
    But with SpaceX and perhaps Blue Horizons, things may be changing!
    Perhaps we may get solar power satellites, and a space based industry that will belatedly make those dreams come true!
    By the way, pardon my garrulousness, it’s cold, and wet, and I’m bored!

    1. The Space Shuttle was never going to be practical. It was designed by a committee of bureaucrats, and the first three or four designs were rejected by a President not much interested in space.

      What we got was a vaguely airplane-shaped guided missile that took 10,000 people 6 months and about a billion dollars to prepare for another flight.

      SpaceX and the others are still repeating NASA’s two biggest mistakes:

      1. Vertical blast-off
      2. Rockets only

      Horizontal take-off requires engines only a fraction the size of vertical launch, generates less stress on the airframe, cargo and people.

      A jet engine produces 20 to 40 times as much power from a given mass of fuel as a rocket. Use jet engines to reach the edge of space, THEN switch to rockets.

      We could have built a single-stage shuttle instead, but…government.
      Hippopotamus: a mouse designed by a government committee.

        1. Oh. Well, congratulations on your friend being an astronaut, and condolences for the loss. They all deserved better.

          I’ve often said the worst thing about the Apollo Program was that it succeeded. It was, in the end, a 25-billion-dollar publicity stunt. We sent men to the Moon. Yay!

          But everything we built was specifically designed to do just that, and pretty much useless for anything else. We didn’t build any sort of general-purpose space flight infrastructure. And, we ‘learned’ that the way to get into space, or to do anything else on a large scale, was with a huge government program. ALL of our space flight efforts went through NASA for more than forty years. The bureaucracy grew, and ossified.

          Then they put all their eggs in one basket with the Space Shuttle, which turned into the Bradley M-2 in space — designed to do all things, none of them well. What we needed was a simple, reliable spaceplane that could haul small cargos and two passengers to orbit, land, refuel and do it again. What we got was…what we got. It had to serve as a temporary space station, of all things. The amount of unnecessary gear it had to haul up on every flight was just dreadful.
          Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!!

      1. Eeh…

        The Shuttle was damned from the outset by NASA selling it as the One And Only Booster. Whereupon the USAF walked in with a requirement to transport a 15’x60′, 40,000 payload into polar orbit. Which drove both size and crosstrack capability. Which, in turn, made a true 2-stage reusable system unaffordable to develop.

        But there is a defensible case to be made that SpaceX has it right…vertical takeoff and landing. Mostly because you need the vertical takeoff capability in any event, so the vertical landing of an empty booster is pathetically cheap. Not easy…it took them a good dozen tries before they had a successful landing. It’s one of the epics of modern flight test.

        Much depends on the technology. Give me scramjets, and the whole situation changes massively…and hypersonics are one of the two Really Big up-and-coming things in aerospace (Highly Autonomous Systems being the other).

        1. Hmm. I’ve got to wonder how close we are to a vertical launch jet/rocket uav being potentially tackled by the college student/hobbyist level engineering team.

          Debris would probably make regulations prohibitive.


        2. Give me scramjets, and the whole situation changes massively…

          Yes, indeed it does, and very much for the better. For quite simple Real Rocket Science Reasons.

          Most of the mass / weight of rocket fuel + oxidizer is in the oxidizer, like liquid oxygen — about 3 or 4 to one for RP-1 kerosene, jet fuel, or methane, 6 to one or more for hydrogen. So if you can ‘inhale’ much or most or all of that from the air the spacecraft moves through, you can get much better performance. As in, game-changing, “massively” better performance.

          (Okay, there are a few weird combinations like CO fuel and O2 oxidizer that do have the fuel weigh more instead — but not many, and you wouldn’t likely ever use them on Earth.)

          And hydrogen and scramjets go together like cheese and crackers due to its impressive ability to absorb heat before it burns, to cool what that very fast moving air heats up for instance, or to liquefy air for later use up higher, or…

          SpaceX has done some deeply impressive stuff. But pure rockets to orbit really is likely to be very much the quick, but hard, way to do this.

    1. I’ll confess I use “futuristic name generator.” But only because I lost the old journals of patents I used to pull names from. In my defense, I then spin them again so it’s not what the engine offers up.

  9. Horror story: back in college, my group of gamer friends would meet at a comic shop on weekends and play a Marvel Superheroes RPG. My character was a an electro-magnetic caster. Long/short – we had a moonbase, bad guys mind-controlled me, I focused an alpha strike onto the surface of the moon and destroyed the entire team, base and all (the GM wasn’t aware how much power I was capable of unleashing)… and he was a little stumped at the damage output so….

    Monday we called NASA. LOL. And asked them lots of questions about what would happen to Earth if X-amount of megatons exploded into the surface of the moon.

    Not a happy ending.

    1. Oh, they tried to sell us launch space, which we found funny. We did manage to get pricing quotes on how much $$ per pound to launch into orbit. Our newly rolled characters used that to raise funds (launching cargo) in our new Alternate Earth.

      On the good side, the GM never tried to mind control me again.

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