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Nuclear pulse propulsion

Nuclear pulse propulsion (or External Pulsed Plasma Propulsion, as it is termed in recent NASA documents) is a proposed method of spacecraft propulsion that uses nuclear explosions for thrust. It was briefly developed as Project Orion by ARPA. It was invented by Stanislaw Ulam in 1957, and is the invention of which he was most proud.

Table of contents
1 Capabilities
2 Design
3 Problems
4 Medusa
5 The Plumbbob Test


Calculations show that this form of rocket would combine both high thrust and a high specific impulse, a rarity in rocket design. Specific impulses from 2000 (easy, yet ten times chemical specific impulses) to 100,000 (requires specialized nuclear explosives and spacecraft design) are possible, with thrusts in the millions of tons.

This is possible because Orion uses nuclear power to make thrust without requiring the power to be held within a rocket chamber. Thus, very high temperatures, exhaust velocities and efficiencies are possible. Orion directs the thrust by using directional nuclear explosives, so it achieves reasonable efficiencies without a rocket bell.

An Orion drive is the only known method of performing manned interstellar exploration with current technology. It would be slow, requiring several generations to get to Alpha Centauri (the closest known solar system other than our own), but it would arrive, assuming it had no accidents.

The most likely real application for an Orion craft is to deflect an earth-crossing asteroid from hitting the Earth. The extreme specific impulse is a major advantage, because it permits the missile to launch late, and still have a hope of arriving in time. Simply hitting the asteroid would be enough to deflect it. A kinetic missile could transfer greater energies than a nuclear explosion, with less risk of breaking up the target. Such craft could be unmanned, and inexpensive (no shock absorbers or shielding), launched from orbits outside the magnetosphere to minimize radioactives in the biosphere.

Carrying through the mass ratios, Orion could be built of steel, without special fittings, and carry crews of hundreds. In 1960, the proposed contractor was Electric Boat, the maker of nuclear submarines.

The design reference model proposed by General Atomics could likely be built today, and land a thousand tons on Mars in several weeks. If reaction mass such as water were gathered from a local moon, the same design could explore the moons of Jupiter or Saturn with a human crew.


In the 1954 explosion at Bikini Atoll, a crucial experiment by Lew Allen proved that nuclear explosives could be used for propulsion. Two graphite-covered steel spheres were suspended near the bomb. After the explosion, they were found intact some distance away, proving that engineered structures could survive a nuclear fireball.

A 1959 report by General Atomics, "Dimensional Study of Orion Type Spaceships," (Dunne, Dyson and Treshow), GAMD-784 explored the parameters of three different sizes of hypothetical Orion spacecraft:

Ship Diameter17-20 m40 m400 m
Ship Mass300 T1-2000 T8,000,000 T
Number of bombs54010801080
Individual Bomb Mass0.22 T0.37-0.75 T3000 T

The most amazing to consider is the "super" Orion design; At 8 million tons, it could easily be a city. In interviews, the designers contemplated the large ship as a possible interstellar ark. This extreme design was buildable with materials and techniques that could be obtained or anticipated in 1958. The real upper limit is probably larger now.

Most of the three thousand tons of each of the "super" Orion's propulsion units would be inert material such as polyethylene, or boron salts, used to transmit the force of the propulsion unit's detonation to the Orion's pusher plate, and absorb neutrons to minimize fallout.

From 1957 through 1964 this information was used to design a spacecraft propulsion system called "Orion" in which nuclear explosives would be thrown through a pusher-plate mounted on the bottom of a spacecraft and exploded underneath. The shock wave and radiation from the detonation would impact against the underside of the pusher plate, giving it a powerful "kick," and the pusher plate would be mounted on large two-stage shock absorbers which would transmit the acceleration to the rest of the spacecraft in a smoother manner.

Radiation shielding for the crews was thought to be a problem, but on ships that mass more than a thousand tons, the material of the pusher plate is sufficiently thick to shield the crew from the explosives' radiation. Radiation shielding goes up as the exponent of the thickness (see gamma ray for a discussion of shielding).

At low altitudes, during take-off, the fallout was extremely dirty, and there was a grave danger of fluidic shrapnel being reflected from the ground. The solution was to use a flat plate of explosives spread over the pusher plate, to get two or three detonations from the ground before going nuclear. This would lift the ship far enough into the air that a focused nuclear blast would avoid harming the ship.

A preliminary design for the explosives was produced. It used a fusion-boosted fission explosive. The explosive was wrapped in a berillium oxide "channel filler", which was surrounded by a uranium radiation mirror. The mirror and channel filler opened out to an open end. In the open end, a flat plate of tungsten propellant was placed. The whole thing was wrapped in a can so that it could be handled by machinery scaled-up from a soft-drink vending machine.

At 1 microsecond after ignition, the gamma, bomb plasma and neutrons would heat the channel filler, and be somewhat contained by the uranium shell. At 2-3 microseconds, the channel filler would transmit some of the energy to the propellant, which would form a cigar-shaped explosion aimed at the pusher plate.

The plasma would cool to 25,000 degrees as it traversed the 75-foot distance to the pusher plate, and then reheat to 120,000 degrees as (at about 300 microseconds), it hit the pusher plate and recompressed. This temperature emits ultraviolet, which is poorly transmitted through most plasmas. This helps keep the pusher plate cool. The cigar shape and low density of the plasma reduces the shock to the pusher plate.

The pusher plate's thickness decreases by about a factor of 6 from the center to the edge, so that the net velocity of the inner and outer parts of the plate are the same, even though the momentum transferred by the plasma increases from the center outwards.

Deep in the air, there might be problems from harm of the crew by gamma scattering.

Stability was thought to be a problem, but it developed that random placement errors of the bombs would cancel.

A one-meter model using RDX (chemical explosives), called "put-put", flew a controlled flight for 23 seconds, to a height of 185 feet at Point Loma.

The shock absorber was at first merely a ring-shaped airbag. However, if an explosion should fail, the one-thousand-ton pusher plate would tear away the airbag on the rebound. A two-stage, detuned shock absorber design proved more workable. On the reference design, the mechanical absorber was tuned to 1/2 the bomb frequency, and the air-bag absorber was tuned to 4.5 the bomb expulsion frequency.

Another problem was finding a way to push the explosives past the pusher plate fast enough that they would explode 20-30m beyond it, and do so every 1.1 seconds. The final reference design used a gas gun to shoot the devices through a hole in the pusher plate.

The expense of the fissionables was thought high, until Ted Taylor proved that with the right designs for explosives, the amount of fissionables used on launch was close to constant for every size of Orion, from 2000 tons to 8,000,000 tons. Smaller ships actually use more fissionables, because they cannot use fusion bombs. The large size bombs used more explosives to super-compress the fissionables (reducing the fallout). The extra explosives simply served as propulsion mass. The expense of launch for the largest size of Orion was 5 cents per pound to Earth orbit in 1958 dollars.


Exposure to repeated nuclear blasts raises the problem of ablation (erosion) of the pusher plate. However, calculations and experiments indicate that a steel pusher plate would ablate less than a millimeter if unprotected. If sprayed with an oil, it need not ablate at all. The absorption spectra of carbon and hydrogen minimize heating. The design temperature of the shockwave, 120,000 degrees F, emits ultraviolet. Most materials and elements are opaque to ultraviolet, especially at the 50,000 PSI pressures the plate experiences. This prevents the plate from melting or ablating.

One issue that remained unresolved at the conclusion of the project was whether the turbulence created by the combination of the propellant and ablated pusher plate would dramatically increase the total ablation of the pusher plate. According to Freeman Dyson, whilst back in the 1960s they would have had to actually perform a test with a real nuclear explosive to determine this, with modern simulation technology this could be determined fairly accurately without such.

The unsolved problem for a launch from the surface of the Earth is the nuclear fallout. Freeman Dyson, an early worker on the project, estimated that with conventional nuclear weapons, each launch would cause fatal cancers in ten human beings from the fallout. To keep this in perspective, roughly 600 people die of cancer each year from eating spices.

However, the fallout for the entire launch of a 6000-ton Orion was only equal to a ten-megaton blast, and he was assuming use of weapon-type nuclear explosives.

With special designs of the nuclear explosive, Ted Taylor estimated that it could be reduced ten-fold, or even to zero if a pure fusion explosive could be constructed. However, bomb designers are reluctant to design such an explosive, because it is thought to be destabilizing, and tempting to terrorists.

The vehicle and its test program would violate the International test ban treaty as currently written. This could almost certainly be solved, if the fallout problem were solved.

The launch of such a craft from the ground or from low Earth orbit would generate an electromagnetic pulse that could cause significant damage to computers and satellites, as well as flooding the van Allen beltss with high-energy radiation. This problem might be solved by launching from very remote areas. EMP footprints are only a few hundred miles wide. The Earth is well-shielded from the Van Allen belts.

True engineering tests of the vehicle systems were said to be impossible because several thousand nuclear explosions could not be performed in any one place. However, experiments were designed to test pusher plates in nuclear fireballs. Long-term tests of pusher plates could occur in space. Several of these almost flew. The shock-absorber designs could be tested full-scale on Earth using chemical explosives.

Assembling a pulse drive spacecraft in orbit by more conventional means and only activating its main drive at a safer distance would be a less destructive approach. Such a system would be much less efficient than the pure pulse approach, because no chemical rocket could conceivably launch a big enough pusher plate to take full advantage of the thrust of the explosions. Adverse public reaction to any use of nuclear explosives is likely to remain a hindrance even if all practical and legal difficulties are overcome.


The "Medusa" design is a type of nuclear pulse propulsion which shares more in common with solar sails than with conventional rockets. It was proposed in the 1990s. A Medusa spacecraft would deploy a large sail ahead of it, attached by cables, and then launch nuclear explosives forward to detonate between itself and its sail. The sail would be accelerated by the impulse, and the spacecraft would follow.

Medusa performs better than the classical Orion design because its "pusher plate" intercepts more of the bomb's blast, because its shock-absorber stroke is much longer, and because all its major structures are in tension and hence can be quite lightweight. It also scales down better. Medusa-type ships would be capable of a specific impulse between 50,000 and 100,000 seconds.

The Jan 1993 and June 1994 issues of JBIS have articles on Medusa. (There is also a related paper in the Nov/Dec 2000 issue.)

The Plumbbob Test

A test similar to the test of a pusher plate apparently happened by accident! During a series of nuclear containment tests called "Plumbbob" in 1957, a low-yield nuclear explosive accelerated a massive (900kilo) steel capping plate above escape velocity. See the account by the experimental designer, Dr. Robert Brownlee. Although his calculations showed that the plate would reach six times escape velocity, and the plate was never found, he believes that the plate never left the atmosphere. It probably vaporized from friction. The calculated velocity was sufficiently interesting that the crew trained a high-speed camera on the plate, which unfortunately only appeared in one frame. Brownlee estimated a lower bound of 2 times escape velocity.


"Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship", George Dyson, 2002, ISBN 0805072845

"Nuclear Pulse Propulsion (Project Orion) Technical Summary Report" RTD-TDR-63-3006 (1963-1964); GA-4805 Vol. 1, Reference Vehicle Design Study, Vol. 2, Interaction Effects, Vol. 3, Pulse Systems, Vol. 4, Experimental Structural Response. (From the National Technical Information Service, U.S.A.)

"Nuclear Pulse Propulsion (Project Orion) Technical Summary Report" 1 July 1963- 30 June 1964, WL-TDR-64-93; GA-5386 Vol. 1, Summary Report, Vol. 2, Theoretical and Experimental Physics, Vol. 3, Engine Design, Analysis and Development Techniques, Vol. 4, Engineering Experimental Tests. (From the National Technical Information Service, U.S.A.)

See also: spacecraft propulsion. nuclear weapon