Project Pluto/SLAM/Skyfall- why nuclear-powered cruise missiles are a really bad idea
If the idea of a nuclear-tipped cruise missile that can endlessly fly through the sky looking for a target scares you, it should- and not for the reasons you’re probably thinking of.
But such was the bizarre thinking of the militaries of the United States of America and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, with some effects resulting in deadlier disasters in post-Soviet Russia.
In the late 1950s, the United States Air Force and Atomic Energy Commission unveiled Project Pluto, a program designed to build and field a nuclear-powered ramjet that could keep a missile in the air for indefinite periods of time.
Beginning work at Lawrence Radiation, the program centered around the Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile, or SLAM.
Effectively operating with a small ramjet chamber that used a small nuclear reactor to superheat the intake air, the missile would move three times faster than the speed of sound and could stay in the air until it was redirected to a target- be that in five minutes, five hours, five days, months or years.
The testing, however, proved that such a weapon was too dangerous -for friend and foe alike- to make with the technology of the times. Given the fragility of the reactors, the level of heat and the slug-like trail of radiation it would shower down onto the ground below as it zipped by, the commonly-conjured speculation of a crash or accident were only two of the worries presented.
Refusing to fly what was effectively a nuclear bomb if it crashed, the researchers tested the prototype device on a rail car at Jackass Flats, Nevada.
While the test was a success, the US military ultimately abandoned the project, citing that the missile was more a “radiation leaker” than a viable weapon.
While the Soviet Union also looked at such projects, it was the Russian Federation that turned the missile into reality, dubbing it the 9M730 Burevestnik.
In 2019, the 9M730 Burevestnik test platform was entering the recovery process following a failed test, which resulted in the missile ending up on the bottom of the White Sea. during the operation, the reactor allegedly breached, resulting in five scientists being killed and radiation being spread into the water.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin issued posthumous awards to the dead men’s families, he went on to state that the “weapon is to be perfected, regardless of anything.”
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