You may recall that shortly before Christmas I sent around a message in which I discussed the design, developmental work and testing that had been done on the Vought SLAM - the nuclear ramjet-powered, H-bomb sowing flying leviathan that was one of many unbelievable but terrifyingly realistic weapons systems dreamed up by atomic eggheads in the 1950s and 1960s. Not surprisingly, this little trot down memory lane sparked a good many comments, most of them concerning the sheer lunacy of creating something that carried a belly-full of nuclear weapons, irradiated anything it flew over, and had a virtually unlimited range. In one subsequent conversation, however, the point came up that, with such maniacal inventions cluttering up our collective history, there didn't seem to be much point in unleashing speculation in an attempt to posit the sorts of innovations ("disruptive technologies", if you like) that might pop up in the future. This is not to suggest that speculation isn't fun, just that there isn't much point in it - particularly when there's no way to predict where technology will go, and especially when we're so woefully ignorant about our own past, and haven't figured out how to deal with things that we ourselves invented half a century ago, but just somehow didn't get around to putting into production. We don't have to go to the history of the space race for such examples; we only need to look into our own archives.
For example, we're all familiar with HEAT rounds - they've been around since WWII, and are fairly simple in concept.
The British PIAT - Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank - relied on a HEAT warhead to (occasionally) penetrate enemy armour. A HEAT warhead consists of an explosive charge with a conical well in the centre, lined with metal (usually copper). The charge is initiated by a base fuze. In the case of the PIAT warhead (below), the projectile is fired at a target; the extended probe on the nose fuze ("transit plug") transmits the shock of impact to the fuze at the base of the HE charge. When the HE charge detonates, the shock wave compresses the copper cone into a jet of molten metal travelling at the speed of the explosion - roughly 7000 m/s in the case of a conventional TNT or Composition B fill. The liquid metal jet penetrates the armour of the target and does corresponding damage to the interior of the vehicle, and its crew. HEAT rounds are very effective, which is probably why they continue to constitute part of the basic load (along with kinetic penetration munitions, like APFSDS) of main battle tanks and armoured fighting vehicles even today. They also continue to make fantastic infantry AT weapons; virtually all current light, medium and heavy AT missiles and rockets, from the venerable RPG-7 to the modern TOW2 missile use HEAT warheads.
Defending against HEAT rounds requires different strategies. First, you can keep the jet away from your armour plate. That means hanging something on your vehicle to make the incoming round detonate further away. Second, you can keep the jet from forming; one way of doing so being explosive reactive armour panels, which detonate when the HEAT round strikes them, destroying the round as the jet is forming. Third, you can thicken up your armour (bearing in mind the requirement that the vehicle still has to be able to move and carry stuff). And fourth, you can try to disrupt the jet and prevent it from penetrating all the way through to the interior of the vehicle (which led to layered armour, with various materials sandwiched between plates to disperse the jet horizontally).
Research in the 1980s and later on took the HEAT concept somewhat further, into explosively formed projectiles (EFPs, also known as self-forging fragment projectiles). During my first visit to Suffield as a staff officer back in the early 90's, I was shown test fragments and videos from trials on a new type of experimental munition: a scaled-up version of an EFP. By thickening the conical well liner in the explosive charge, or by changing to a different, tougher metal than copper (e.g., iron), the charge, when detonated, would - instead of forming a liquid metal jet - compress the metal cone into a slug moving at very high speed. The slug would not be affected by stand-off detonation mechanisms or explosive-reactive armour panels, and layering armour to disperse a metal jet horizontally wouldn't be much help.
Moreover, you could make the slug big. Really, really big.
THIS big. That's from a test at Suffield back in the 90's. I recall handling something like this during a visit. It was more than a foot long and weighed about 30 pounds. Imagine that thing coming at you at several thousand metres per second. And the creation of them, by the way, is an exercise in perfect machining backed up by mathematics. Here's an image from a DRES paper from 1995 (by one of our own colleagues - see note A) on modelling EFPs:
Note the similarities - and the caption which states that the mathematical models were confirmed by experimentation. That hunk of metal started out looking like a wok about an inch thick, and after being whapped with a couple dozen kilos of HE, ended up looking like the lawn dart from Hell. Math is awesome.
There's no point in going into too much more detail on EFPs, because that isn't what I really wanted to talk about in this message anyway. I simply wanted to emphasize the fact that this technology is now old - so old that the Iraqi insurgents, al Qaeda, and other jihadist adversaries have adapted self-forging fragment technology to off-road mines and IEDs, and we're still having a heck of a time dealing with it. What I'm getting at is that we don't need to invent science-fictiony "future" threats like "tunable weapons" and "gray goo nanobots" and "hyper-empowered individuals" if we're already facing things invented decades ago, but that have got us completely boggled.
Which takes me to today's topic - the Death Star. Or at least the Soviet equivalent, Polyus.
A few years back I penned a tech note looking at the arms control implications of space testing missions, specifically the October 2009 LCROSS experiment in which NASA slammed a rocket body into the Moon as part of its search for water on the lunar surface. The paper attracted its fair share of mocking laughter due to the title, which I wrote in jest ("Bombing the Moon"), but anyone who'd taken a moment to read the thing - it wasn't long - would have realized that I was trying to point out the implications of arms control treaties, agreements and regimes for otherwise legitimate space exploration and testing exercises, and vice versa. More knowledgable individuals with a higher security clearance who read that note would have recognized that I was trying to discuss in synecdoche a much more profound incident with significant legislative implications.
Of course, these days most folks don't seem to go in for specialized knowledge, and those who do often seem to lack the security clearance (or the simple interest) to delve deeper into important, paradigm-altering problems that actually impact us on a daily basis. People styling themselves "scientists" seem to prefer to fiddle with models rather than data and evidence, blathering on in bland, meaningless generalities devoid of any linkage to the real world rather than grappling with current problems. I guess that's easier and safer. Whether it's anything more than a complete and utter waste of time and taxpayer money, on the other hand...that's for other folks to decide.
But I digress. In the course of that tech note, I discussed the arms control prohibitions against space-based weapons, briefly mentioning the 1987 launch of an 80-tonne orbital object by the USSR. This vehicle, it has been suggested, was to have been the forerunner of a series of orbital battle platforms intended to neutralize the US Strategic Defence Initiative systems (which of course were never deployed).
Polyus failed to achieve orbit and ended up in the Pacific Ocean, and the Soviets never tried again - but the point is, they tried once. Polyus wasn't some postulated "disruptive technology" or theorized "future threat". It was very real.
And yes, I know the above picture has "MIR" on the side of the big black thing; according to the official article on Polyus from the Buran website, MIR space station modules were used in its construction. Here's a pic of the vehicle on the launch pad at Baikonur in 1987; the "Polyus" name is clearly visible on the side (you can sort of see it in the colour pic above, too):
For the sake of reference, the Polyus vehicle in the image above is 40 m long, about 4 m in diameter, and weighed 80 tons. The Space Shuttle Orbiter is 37 m long, and weighs about 70 tons empty (its gross liftoff weight is about 109 tons). So this was no mere firecracker.
How real was all this? Well, real enough that Mikhail Gorbachev showed up at Baikonur on 11 May 1987 to see the thing shortly before it was launched.
According to one news report, one of the purposes of Gorby's visit was to confirm that Polyus was not carrying any weapons. Did it, or didn't it? The actual story is a little hard to get a grip on; there are numerous pictures available from different archives, and various articles published by project personnel over the years tell different stories. Schematics abound on the innerwebz:
If your Russian is as good as mine, you won't have gotten any of that. Here's an alleged translation, according to an article penned by one Ed Grondine:
There isn't much in the way of empirical support for Grondine's assertions. Most of what is available in the public domain about Polyus comes from official websites (for example, Buran), which don't mention self-defence armaments, much less "nuclear space mines". A lot of the funkier stuff comes from a 2005 article by Konstantin Lantratov, a former press officer in the Russian space industry, entitled "Star Wars That Didn't Happen". According to the Buran website, for example, the Polyus vehicle carried ten separate scientific experiments - the first of which was testing the USSR's ability to orbit super-heavy packages...like Polyus. Interestingly, the site contains dozens of photos of the spacecraft in the assembly stages; it appears to have been cobbled together out of spare parts:
The service block looked like a "Salyut" slightly modified for this task and was made up from parts of the ships "Cosmos-929, -1267, -1443, -1668" and from modules of MIR-2 station. In this block took place the management systems and on-board displacement, the telemetric control, the radiocommunication, the heating system, the antennas and finally the scientific installations. All the apparatuses wich not supporting the vacuum were installed in the hermetic section. The part of the engines made up of 4 propulsion engines, 20 auxiliary engines for stabilization and the orientation, 16 precision engines, as well as tanks and pneumo-hydraulics conduits. Lastly, the production of electricity was made by solar panels which were spread when Polyus was into working orbit. (Note B)
The size, design and components of the vehicle - not to mention the secrecy with which it was fabricated and launched (which was not at all uncommon during the Cold War, remember) - would naturally spark all manner of conspiracy theories. The vehicle according to Buran contained large quantities (420 kg) of xenon and krypton in 42 cylinders of 32 L capacity, with an injector to squirt the gas into the upper atmosphere to "generate ionized signals with long waves". Grondine argues that the purpose of this was to produce light by fluorescence, in order to signify that a container (possibly holding a nuclear space mine?) had been launched without generating radio energy, which could be tracked. According to other sources (e.g., the always infallible Wikipedia), the gases were intended to be used to test, with the appearance of innocence, the venting apparatus for a zero-torque exhaust system for a 1 megawatt carbon dioxide laser intended to damage Strategic Defence Initiative satellites.
Grondine also commented, as many others did, on the "optically black shroud" covering the whole thing. Painting a space object black is one way to make it more difficult to see via reflected light - although the point of doing so when you've got huge solar panels sticking out of the sides of the thing escapes me. Also, painting it black would tend to make it hot, as it would absorb rather than reflect solar radiation; and unless the thing incorporated stealth technology, it would still be easily visible by radar, which is how SpaceCom tracks large orbital objects anyway.
The fate of Polyus was in any event not a happy one. It was launched on 15 May 1987, two days after Gorby's visit to Baikonur ended. The Buran website has a comical description of why the GenSec missed the launch:
The first launch of Energia and Polyus was so important for the direction of the party that the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party itself, Mikhaïl Sergeevich Gorbatchev, went. However, it is well-known that any apparatus, so simple is it, have a strong probability of breaking down during a demonstration or in the presence of VIPs, this is why the Management committee had decided (on May 8) to delay the departure on May 15, under pretext of technical problems, knowing that M.S. Gorbatchev could not remain because it had a voyage to the head office of UNO at New York.(Note B)
Their precautions turned out to be well-founded. Because the Energiya had been designed with hang-points for the Buran space shuttle system, Polyus had to use the same connection mechanisms. This led to it being mounted backwards, i.e. with the main thruster engines facing forward, resulting in a complicated mission profile. In order to achieve orbit, after about 8 minutes into the flight program, at an altitude of about 110 km, the Polyus would jettison its engine shroud, separate from the Energiya booster, and execute a 180 degree turn using its thrusters. Once this was complete, about 15 minutes into the flight and at an altitude of about 155 km, it would fire its main engines periodically to level the craft, and eventually achieve a stable orbit at 280 km altitude, by about 30 minutes after launch.
That's not what happened. Only one of the positioning thrusters functioned, and the Polyus, instead of making a 180 degree rotation, made a full 360, leaving the main engines pointing forward. Instead of accelerating the craft into orbit, the engines decelerated it, and Polyus deorbited into the Pacific Ocean, reportedly landing in water that was several kilometres deep. According to open sources, the spacecraft was never retrieved.
So, Polyus was real. The Soviets really built it, and they really launched it. Did they arm it? Was it supposed to be the first real space battle station? Would it have worked? A 1-megawatt laser isn't much in atmosphere, where blooming and attenuation quickly destroy beam coherence; but in space, it might be fairly effective over a reasonably long range. Could it also have carried "nuclear space mines", presumably for use against US orbital assets? I think a more important question is, could it have carried nuclear warheads as part of a fractional orbital bombardment system, or FOBS? That was one of the big worries of the 1960s, and it was one of the key reasons that the US and USSR negotiated the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibited placing "nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction" either in orbit or on celestial bodies.(Note C - and here we are back at the "Bombing the Moon" technical note again. Funny how this arms control nonsense keeps coming back to haunt us. Almost like it was relevant or something.)
Would the Soviets have broken the OST? Well, when you can't figure out why somebody's doing what they're doing, or whether they're likely to be doing something they shouldn't, you've got two choices: pull a guess out of your nether regions (the preferred option for "analysts" who don't know anything about anything and think that history is "stuff that's in books"); or use actual evidence. In such cases, the only evidence we have to go on is historical precedent - i.e., what have the suspects done in the past, and why. Would the USSR have abrogated the 1967 OST by placing nuclear weapons in orbit? Well, they signed the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which prohibited producing biological weapons...and then went on to build the biggest biological weapons complex in the world, churning out weaponized anthrax, smallpox, and a host of other pathogens literally by the metric tonne. By the late 1970s, the USSR was consuming 400,000 fresh eggs per week simply to incubate the weaponized India-1 strain of Variola Major, and had developed refrigerated, heat-dissipating ICBM warheads specifically designed to keep viral and bacterial agents alive during re-entry.
So you could say that, when it comes to the former USSR and its adherence to non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament conventions, there are some legitimate trust issues.
I guess the final take-away from this is that when it comes to trying to figure out what a potential enemy might be able to do in the near future, one of the best guides is knowing what they've done to you in the near past. If nothing else, the existence of things like the Vought SLAM and the Polyus Space Battle Station should give us a smidgeon of perspective on some of the prerequisites and challenges involved in creating massive and potentially threatening items of military hardware. In other words, if we want to figure out whether somebody might put an orbital battle station in Low Earth Orbit and use it to dazzle or destroy our satellites or FOB a nuke onto one of our cities, the first thing we should do is make a list of folks who (a) can build space stations, (b) have a heavy-lift rocket capability, and (c) don't like us. The intersection in that Venn diagram is where we ought to start looking.
And if the intersection is empty, maybe we shouldn't waste our time making up non-existant things to fill it.
Anyway, if anyone wants to read Lantratov's article and feels like slogging through 28 pages of "Google-translated" grammar, just let me know. He gives all the details about cannons, targets, gas generators, and mentions that the black finish on the vehicle was to help maintain working temperature by absorbing solar energy. It's a cornucopia of awesome, and by the time you're finished reading it you'll be muttering "Commence primary ignition!" under your breath.
Cheers - and may the farce be with you!
NotesA) The paper is available from the DRDC online archive.
C) http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/SpaceLaw/outerspt.html. The OST also prohibits laying claim to celestial terrain.