January 13, 2010

Manmade Sun Explosion Risks

Guest Post by Joseph Friedlander discussing novaing a sun or near term possibility of manmade flares of sufficient intensity to be an existence risk for life in the solar system. Manmade sun explosions are a future risk that needs to be considered as well as massive artificial fusion explosions of gas giants or moons. Relatively minor changes in solar luminosity and regularity could be fatal for the Earth as an inhabitable planet. Even if temporary, what comfort if we will not be around when the Sun recovers? Could even using a Jupiter slingshot maneuver send a massively shielded nuclear device into the sun trigger a sufficiently dangerous solar by exploding at sufficient depth ?

This is your occasional guest correspondent, Joseph Friedlander, writing about the possibility of the least welcome kind of ‘anthropogenic global warming’ imaginable—a human caused detonation of the Sun we all depend upon.

At the request of Professor Alexander A. Bolonkin, I have compiled a re-translation of the Russian-language interview concerning the Professor’s 2007 investigation of the danger of a man-triggered detonation of the Sun. As Next Big Future is an alert mechanism of the Lifeboat Foundation, we should appreciate that a solar detonation of any magnitude could destroy any free-flying colony buildable soon in the inner Solar System—and total Solar detonation could do far more than that.

A term to describe this has been invented by Neil Craig -- ‘novaing’ the Sun. Note that this does not necessarily connote the entire destruction of the physical order of the Solar System—even quite minor changes in solar luminosity and regularity could be fatal for the Earth as an inhabitable planet. Even if temporary, what comfort if we will not be around when the Sun recovers?

Professor Bolonkin has written a new paper

and I had the honor to help him with certain speculative parts of it –not the heavy hitting equations part—those are his!

When the ejection is directed towards the Earth and reaches it as an interplanetary CME (ICME), the shock wave of the traveling mass of Solar Energetic Particles causes a geomagnetic storm that may disrupt the Earth's magnetosphere, compressing it on the day side and extending the night-side magnetic tail. When the magnetosphere reconnects on the nightside, it releases power on the order of terawatt scale, which is directed back toward the Earth's upper atmosphere.
Why is Earth’s cosmic vulnerability a concern? As far back as World War I, Robert Frost noted, in the poem “It Bids Pretty Fair”, about the fate of Man on Earth—“We'll be all right if nothing goes wrong with the lighting.” There are few more basic assumptions than that when the Sun rises in the morning, it will be the nourishing, life-giving, rain-giving that we are used to, not some cosmic blowtorch.

A recent scare highlighted the concerns while proving a false alarm (‘wiping out’ was really damage to the ozone layer, and 3000 light years away would have to be 300 to do the advertised damage). But compare 300 light years to 8 light minutes, and you can understand that an incredibly less dramatic stellar ‘burp’ would be more than enough to seal the fate of civilization.

And unlike with many prospective Earthly dooms, a free-floating space lifeboat colony --even a vast network of them that was totally industrially and agriculturally independent of imports— would prove no refuge, at least inside the orbit of the Kuiper Belt. It might be possible to deeply burrow into geologically cool objects like the Moon or other large moons or asteroids (for some kilometers of radiation/ablative protection in case of a minor eruption) but a full fledged evaporative solar detonation would not necessarily be survivable within many radii of the orbit of Pluto (which gets ~1000x less light than Earth does). I have not calculated the exact shielding needs; but I would want to see such a convincing accounting from an independent source. But the bottom line is that it vastly increases the complexity of the baseline ‘lifeboat’ that humanity needs. It is also the best argument for cometary colonization I have ever seen.

Against a runaway rock-vapor greenhouse generating 500 km impact object, like in this extract from the Japanese documentary Miracle Planet, the antipodes from the impact (in this case Brazil) would have perhaps 18 hours to live, lending a new urgency to the phrase ‘launch on demand’.

The heated atmosphere itself would balloon out (not shown in the video) causing prompt reentry of all low-flying satellites (say under geostationary orbit) –indeed, the hurtling impact ejecta alone would probably do that by direct collision. The ~3000 ° Centigrade plus rock vapor atmosphere would eliminate all life not in the postulated deep biosphere (after the oceans are boiled away)

But a geostationary or further space colony –as one Lifeboat Society study suggested-- would survive such an asteroidal horror. But a solar doom is another story entirely.

This topic may seem totally out of left field, but there are two papers I would urge all concerned to read. The formidable Alexei Valerievich Turchin, of the Russian Transhumanist movement, has written of the dangers of thermonuclear detonation of the deuterium rich strata of other Solar System bodies--

The possibility of artificial fusion explosion of giant planets and other objects of Solar system

When the ejection is directed towards the Earth and reaches it as an interplanetary CME (ICME), the shock wave of the traveling mass of Solar Energetic Particles causes a geomagnetic storm that may disrupt the Earth's magnetosphere, compressing it on the day side and extending the night-side magnetic tail. When the magnetosphere reconnects on the nightside, it releases power on the order of terawatt scale, which is directed back toward the Earth's upper atmosphere.

which quite terrifyingly works out a logical chain (as only Turchin can) with distressing conclusion: The familiar story that the atomic scientists in World War II calculated that detonation of atmosphere and the oceans (“Necessary conditions for the initiation and propagation of nuclear detonation waves in plane atmospheres”. Tomas Weaver and A. Wood, Physical review 20 – 1 Jule 1979, was impossible had a long-hidden corollary: One in 6200 hydrogen atoms being deuterium cannot propagate a thermonuclear explosion, true, but one in 300 can. (Albeit with a 20 teraton—гигатонн- (20,000 gigaton) hydrogen bomb!) Though the Jupiter deuterium ratio overall is thought to be 1 in 1600—there are many mechanisms that can concentrate gasses, including random circulation. Supposing for a moment that natural pockets of greater than one in 300 exist within Jupiter and other potential locations in the Solar System (including some non obvious ones on Earth) a threshold sufficiently low may be reached and even far exceeded (say 1 in 10) in narrow spots that can serve as a ‘blasting cap’ to detonate somewhat lesser deuterium enrichments around them. Just as in a multi-stage thermonuclear bomb, enriched material detonates—directly or indirectly-- ‘cheaper’ and more available material. Even a ‘small’ runaway cosmic explosion, detonated within our own solar system, can visit ballistic and radiation horrors upon our atmosphere though the Sun and Earth remain intact, though the detonation cease propogating long before it consumes all the thermonuclear fuel available.

With accurate intelligence on these cosmic vulnerable spots, a future dictator run state (in an age when nuclear weapons and rocketry have become all but universal) might target such a cosmic blasting cap as an Ultima ratio regum - the final argument of kings (Louis XIV of France directed that his cannons be cast with writing in iron spelling out the warning: "ultima ratio regum" (ca.1650).)

Since existential risks are cumulative, in the centuries following that, nanotech may make discreet ‘assembly’ of gigatons of deuterium or helium-3 fuel into compact detonatable pockets ‘on site’ easy prey for a small detonator arriving years later.

If the entire stock of Jovian deuterium could be detonated, Turchin notes,
” it will emit the energy equivalent of about 3000 years of luminescence of the Sun during a few tens of seconds. That is enough to disrupt the Earth's atmosphere and destroy the upper few kilometers of Earth’s crust, and destroy all future human colonies in the Solar system… In the future deliberate ignition of giant planets may become a means of space war. Such event could sterilize the entire Solar system…{speaking of a short duration high-yield flash} in case of a future space conflict, a party which will possess bases [not exposed to the flash because of the timing and duration—i.e. their hemisphere is turned away from the pre-timed detonation] can be interested in explosion of Jupiter on purpose to clear the Solar system of the opponent.) … {Speaking of the radiation consequences of even a partial detonation of a cosmic body] … Even if only one ten thousand part [of the cosmic debris] will consist of radioactive elements, it all the same will be 10 e 9 tons, or 2 tons on square kilometre of an earth surface, that is 50 000 mole amounts of nickel or 10 e 29 atoms which will give 10 e17 decays (bequerels) on a square metre per second, that, is roughly speaking, there will correspond to one million roentgen in a second, that is one thousand lethal doses a second. Even if radiation will be a billion times less [for a partial or failed detonation] one lethal dose will only take 10 days…”

The distribution mechanism would presumably be infalling cosmic dust laced with the radioactive ruins of Jupiter (in this admittedly unlikely scenario). That it would take some time to accumulate a lethal dose in Earth’s atmosphere might give some hope to put together an emergency deep shelter program—on the other hand, the earliest fallout, from the parts of Jupiter exactly facing the 100,000 times smaller disc of the Earth in the Jovian heavens; or, if thrown into solar orbit, the say one in 2 billion area of Earth’s disc against the 1 AU sphere defining its’ orbit. The argument is that on geometry alone (neglecting the gravity sweeping effect) radioactive debris would impact the Earth on a scale that would kill all surface life within a very short time. If the detonation occurs at 1000 km/sec (far in excess of Jupiter’s 59.2 km/sec escape velocity) the earliest fallout would hit Earth in 8 days—not enough time for any shelter program to speak of. The debris of the Jovian Moons and the solid substance of the interior of Jupiter would have some portion thrown between the Earth and Sun, literally being enough on its own to kill life on Earth through a Sun-eclipsing ring of dark dust that freezes us in a dark that lasts for decades and only clears through hellish cosmic bombardments—even if the radioactivity did not exist. Clearly, killing mechanisms exist in such a case.

This is one of the few scenarios which makes an On The Beach scenario sound mild. —upon reading that book as a teenager II was scared and fascinated—later I calculated that you would need a supertanker load of Cobalt-60—ideally distributed—to do the job described in the book, and I realized that it was an emotional rather than a factual work. In ‘real life’ the Australian government, given years to react, would have attempted to save at least a few in shelters, mines, etc (10% of 10 million people’s food stored for 50 years ~9 Cobalt-60 half lives-- could save 20000 survivors, possibly enough to maintain the human race and civilization)with microfilm, archived waterproof warehouses of industrial bootup material awaiting them upon exit, etc.).

With A.V. Turchin’s scenario, however, forget it. Even a lesser scenario, the detonation of Калисто (Callisto), the moon of Jupiter –E.M. Drobyshevski’s explosive chemistry hypothesis is the mechanism given, which would result in a 1 megaton of TNT meteorite impact or airburst every day, a 1 gigaton impact once a year and a once in a lifetime impact of 100,000 megatons (100 gigatons) from the fragments of Callisto.

Jovian satellite Callisto - Possibility and consequences of its explosion
Drobyshevski, E. M.

Earth, Moon, and Planets (ISSN 0167-9295), vol. 44, Jan. 1989, p. 7-23.

leaving that chemical mechanism hypothesis aside, simply the detonation of a deuterium rich pocket on that moon—possibly put in place by the very human agents detonating it—could wreak cosmic devastation on the Earth as an act of political vengeance for some future fringe state.

Which brings us to the themes of Professor Bolonkin’s paper.

By a gravity assist by Jupiter, a low-energy launch using the same trajectory used by Galileo (Venus-Earth-Earth-Jupiter) can use the gravitational might of Jupiter to cancel its’ (at that distance, slower) orbital velocity around the sun, and begin a long drop toward the Sun.

Because of the extreme escape velocity of the Sun, (617 km/sec) terminal approach time is short and interception is hard.

Penetration of at least the outer layers of the solar envelope is survivable.

The Sun’s extreme gravity greatly increases the density of each layer down (the ‘scale height of its’ atmosphere)

The Sun is already plasma.

Plasma is more opaque to radiation. (So less detonative energy escapes and the reaction has a chance of propogation)

As small as a 500 kiloton device may be adequate to begin some kind of detonative process in the Sun. (How far it goes – does it damp out—badly needs national lab attention. The relieving answer would be that it does damp out at an insignificant power level. But it would be foolish to count on that hopeful fact being true).

The AB-Criterion for Solar Detonation (see our paper)

cannot exclude the possibility at our present state of knowledge that the Sun is vulnerable to a man-made catastrophe.

The worst part is, as I worked on my part of the paper, things like the entry problem (protection for the incoming warhead) that I thought would be intractable, appeared to offer at least plausible solutions. It felt like a problem that wanted to be solved— usually a good sign, but not here. I will not list every stage of thought I went through here, nor the dialogue I had with Professor Bolonkin, because my goal is not to say how it could be done, but to warn that it might well be capable of being done.

Part of my mind found powerful arguments to explore such a capability (IF we could be assured that the reaction was controllable.

As I wrote in my section of the paper,

Might there be peaceful uses for such a capability? In the extremely hypothetical case that a yet greater super-scale CME (Coronal Mass Expulsion—JF) could be triggered towards a given target in space, such a pulse of denser than naturally possible gas might be captured by a giant braking array designed for such a purpose to provide huge stocks of hydrogen and helium at an asteroid or moon lacking these materials for purposes of future colonization.

A worse weapon on the scale we postulate might be an asymmetric eruption (a form of directed thermonuclear blast using solar hydrogen as thermonuclear fuel), which shoots out a coherent (in the sense of remaining together) burst of plasma at a given target without going runaway and consuming the outer layers of the Sun. If this quite unlikely capability were possible at all (dispersion issues argue against it—but before CMEs were discovered, they too would have seemed unlikely), such an apocalyptic ‘demo’ would certainly be sufficient emphasis on a threat, or a means of warfare against a colonized solar system. With a sufficient thermonuclear burn –and if the condition of nondispersion is fulfilled—might it be possible to literally strip a planet—Venus, say —of its’ atmosphere? (It might require a mass of fusion fuel— and a hugely greater non-fused expelled mass comparable in total to the mass to be stripped away on the target planet.)

It is not beyond the limit of extreme speculation to imagine an expulsion of this order sufficient to strip Jupiter’s gas layers off the ‘Super-Earth’ within. —To strip away 90% or more of Jupiter’s mass (which otherwise would take perhaps ~400 Earth years of total solar output to disassemble with perfect efficiency and neglecting waste heat issues). It would probably waste a couple Jupiter masses of material (dispersed hydrogen and helium). It would be an amazing engineering capability for long term space colonization, enabling substantial uses of materials otherwise unobtainable in nearly all scenarios of long term space civilization.

Moving up on the energy scale-- “boosting” or “damping” a star, pushing it into a new metastable state of greater or lesser energy output for times not short compared with the history of civilization, might be a very welcome capability to colonize another star system—and a terrifying reason to have to make the trip.

And of course, in the uncontrollable case of an induced star explosion, in a barren star system it could provide a nebula for massive mining of materials to some future super-civilization. It is worth noting in this connection that the Sun constitutes 99.86 percent of the material in the Solar System, and Jupiter another .1 percent. Literally a thousand Earth masses of solid (iron, carbon) building materials might be possible, as well as thousands of oceans of water to put inside space colonies in some as yet barren star system.

But here in the short-term future, in our home solar system, such a capability would present a terrible threat to the survival of humanity, which could make our own solar system completely barren.

A paper that is not comforting in this context is

Geo-engineering Gone Awry: A New Partial Solution of Fermi’s Paradox


Milan M. Ćirković & Richard B. Cathcart

“Technological civilizations arising on such planets will be, at some point of their histories or another, tempted to embark upon massive geo-engineering projects. If, for some reasons only very recently understood, large-scale geo-engineering is in fact much more dangerous than previously thought, the scenario in which at least some of the extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way self destruct in this manner gains plausibility. In addition, we speculate on possible reasons, both physical and culturological, which could make such a threat even more pertinent on an average Galactic terrestrial planet than on Earth.”

Can we not draw analogies between this—the temptation to alter one’s star for profit or power—assuring oneself it will succeed—and then… doubling up on the bet again and again… because you have always got away with it--- because now the economy of the Solar System depends upon it, until…until…

Hey, just a thought. Forget about it…

Unless you work with supercomputer modeling in a national lab or university.

In which case, please tell us that we are wrong.

Artificial Explosion of Sun. AB-Criterion for Solar Detonation

Those concerned with the human future can then sleep a lot easier!

Respectfully, Joseph Friedlander (for Professor A.A. Bolonkin)


Translation of Interview

Dr.Sci. Boris Kruglyak

Artificial explosion of the Sun - The main danger to mankind

(Translation from Russian. Published in of 5 January 2007)

Interview with Doctor of Science, Professor Alexander Bolonkin

Note. Ph.D., Professor Alexander Bolonkin - well-known scientist, worked in the Soviet aircraft and missile industry, NASA, the research laboratories of the Air Force of the United States. He lectured at the Moscow Aviation University and American Universities. He is author of the acclaimed books "Non-Rocket Space Launch and Flights" (London, Elsevier, 2006), "New Concepts, Ideas and Innovations in Space, Technology and Human Sciences”, (NOVA, 2008), "Human Immortality and Electronic Civilization ", (Lulu, 2007, USA) and more than 170 scientific papers. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the International Space Agency (ISA), Chairman of the Section Interplanetary flights of ISA.

B.K. Alexander, the press leaked the information on your initiative that studies the possibility of an artificial explosion of the Sun. Could you explain, in a popular manner, what this is about and why it should be studied.

A.B. It is half-secret and not publicized, but I now think it most important to mankind and people should be aware of this danger.

B.K. And what is this danger?

A.B. Imagine yourself that you're sitting with a fanatic on a cistern of gasoline. A fanatic believes that if he kills you - "infidel", he certainly would go to paradise. And he has the opportunity to throw a match into a barrel - after which you will both burn in a huge fire.

B.K. We live on Earth, but it is not flammable!

A.B. But we exist because of the sun. And the sun consists by weight nearly 80% of a hydrogen plasma. Hydrogen as fuel in a hydrogen bomb and the main source of solar heat. On the sun fusion reaction of hydrogen nuclei is very slow using the so-called "tunnel effect" because the temperature of the Sun below the ignition temperature of explosive thermonuclear reaction. Sun is "smoldering" providing Earth’s life. But if you at least one point of the Sun exceed the ignition temperature, then this giant "keg" with hydrogen explodes, scatters, and burns the entire solar system, everything, even the most distant planets.

B.K. But such "matches", thank G-d, don’t exist. So we do not have to worry. Furthermore, no one wants to commit suicide.

A.B. Here you (like most people) are gravely mistaken. This "match" may be a specially constructed nuclear bomb. And the firebug -- a dying dictator of a totalitarian state that has nuclear bomb and missiles. People are already convinced that the world is full of suicide terrorists, who sincerely believe that the more they kill "infidels", the sooner they get into heaven.

Astronomers often observe an explosion of so-called "new" stars, when they explode, all around the world. Many of the astronomers explain the explosions from natural causes. But these explosions (or at least part of them) may be artificial - caused by war within civilizations which have mastered nuclear technology.

The universe existed for billions of years, has billions of planets suitable for life and biological beings, capable of reaching high knowledge and technology. But nobody has come to us, nobody sent a signal. (The famous “Fermi Paradox”. )I'm afraid - this is a sign that civilizations which have mastered nuclear technology, but are unable to settle their internal conflicts by peaceful means, simply blow up their solar system.

B.K. How long have you maintained these studies?

A.B. I expressed my concerns and offered to start looking for methods of protection against this most terrible danger to humanity as far back as 1992. Unfortunately, the Americans (yes, apparently, and other governments) are beginning to sense trouble, only when they got a good conk with a brick. So was the first satellite of the Earth, when the Americans after 12 years of racing caught up with the Soviet Union in space (before landing Americans on the Moon), so it was with suicide attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, led to the deaths of more than 3000 Americans.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the great rival to America disappeared, and many government fund recipients turned to looting of public funds. This included even defense contractors and some scientific groups

At present, some countries are funding research to protect the Earth from asteroids, there is popular filmmaking on this subject, but none in higher office think about the much more comprehensive and impending danger of an artificial explosion of the Sun.

A large hydrogen bomb equivalent asteroid falls to Earth at least once in 100 years. Even though such a blast could destroy one city, for any given hit there is a 99% chance that it will fall into the ocean or desert, sparsely populated areas. Larger asteroids exist, but they are rare enough that a super tsunami from one might take place once in several thousand years.

While more than 30 countries have elements of a nuclear-missile weapon, and several totalitarian states have already possessed the genuine article. Deep space launches will also come, within decades.

Nuclear bombs is enough accumulated to destroy all intelligent life on Earth, although their mass is only one of a billion- billionth (10-20) of the mass of the Earth. But the mass of the Sun is more 300 thousand times than the mass of the Earth, and it consists almost entirely of nuclear fuel. Humanity must take immediate steps to ensure that some maniac dictator does not immolate all the people in the nuclear furnace of the sun.

B.K.. But the United States spend on NASA more than all other states on space combined. A recent American President has approved a new program of building a base on the Moon.

A.B. It is all true, but NASA has become an ineffective giant bureaucracy, devouring great amounts of money and giving very new planetary launches. After the collapse of the USSR, NASA lost a competitor. Many economists have suggested splitting NASA into two competing organizations. New lunar exploration program is a purely political decision, related to the fact that the Chinese are planning around the year 2020 to land on the Moon. Can you imagine what noise would be made in the World. All have long forgotten, that once Americans were on the Moon. That is why the U.S. government sees it as important to get ahead of the Chinese. Although from a scientific point of view, the enormous costs associated with the development of the Moon (and Mars) is totally unjustified. As shown in my work, for the money (and it is only by NASA hundreds of billions of dollars) you can turn the Earth into a paradise.

B.K. What methods do you propose to prevent the artificial explosion of the Sun?

A.B. On all methods I cannot speak, but some are obvious, and to the layman. It is an international inspection by UN the heads of missiles before a launch for finding of nuclear weapons and, most importantly, the creation of international anti-missile (or laser weapons) that are capable of destroying unknown missiles flying toward the Sun.
I would like to draw public attention to one more close, though not so terrible danger. The fact is that science is poised to establish a cheap primer (detonator) to the thermonuclear bomb. To explain myself: The fuel for thermonuclear reactions is relatively cheap (the same hydrogen and its isotopes) and in principle can be constructed thermonuclear bombs of any power. However, the fuse for them is expensive -conventional nuclear bomb from uranium, plutonium isotopes and heavy elements. When a heavy element free detonator will be created for the thermonuclear reaction, a mini-thermonuclear engine (and bombs) will be able to make any small group, having the appropriate equipment. And to control this production (and the proliferation of nuclear weapons) will be very difficult.

B.K. Thanks for the interview; I hope that humanity can avoid the troubles that threaten it.
A.B. I also hope so, but protection and precautions should be taken already.

December, 2006 ,

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