OF RAILGUNS, ASTEROIDS, AND ROBERT HEINLEIN…June 12, 2019
I never underestimate the articles that readers and contributors to this website discover and pass along, but this one is a "whopper doozie" that was spotted by B.H. Reading it, I thought of an odd quartet of people: (1) Robert Heinlein, the famous science fiction author, (2) J. Michael Straczynski, creator and producer of the 1990s television sci-fi series Babylon Five, (3) Dr. Carol Rosin, and finally (4) Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. What made me think of them was this article, which almost begs that one "read between the lines" when reading it, especially since the article itself mentions Robert Heinlein specifically. We'll get back to that:
Electric rail guns, or mass drivers as they are sometimes called: it is that technology which made me think of the above very strange and odd quartet. The article wants us to think that the rail gun will be tested on a US Navy ship. But the fact of the matter is, it already has been tested. Successfully. The only problem was the special projectiles that the weapon fires cost around $800,000 each so the Navy elected not to deploy the weapon (or so we're told... but that may not include that "space fleet" that British hacker Gary McKinnon says he saw when he hacked into American defense databases).
What's really worrying, however, is the talk of using such a device to "launch payloads" from the Moon:
Recent testing of the electromagnetic railgun under Navy auspices had the technology firing a projectile that exceeds Mach 6, approaching a velocity that hearkens back to early ideas of utilizing this machinery on the moon to hurl payloads from the lunar surface.
Mach 6 — six times the speed of sound — is about 4,600 mph (7,400 km/h) at sea level here on Earth. The escape velocity from the relatively small, nearly airless moon is about 5,300 mph (8,530 km/h).
In 1974, Princeton University professor and space visionary Gerard O'Neill proposed use of an electromagnetic railgun to lob payloads from the moon. (The basic idea, however, may originate with sci-fi author Robert Heinlein, who laid out something similar in his 1966 novel "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.")
"Mass drivers" based on a coilgun design were adapted to accelerate a nonmagnetic object. One application O'Neill proposed for mass drivers: toss baseball-sized chunks of ore mined from the surface of the moon into space. Once in space, the ore could be used as raw material for building space colonies and solar-power satellites.
Whew! We can relax: it's being proposed simply as a means of launching stuff we mine on the Moon.
Except that little mention of Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress doesn't envision anything so calming. Rather, in Heinlein's novel, the "Mass driver" is used to hurl rocks from the Moon to a defenseless Earth, which soon capitulates to Heinlein's lunar rebels rather than suffer an interplanetary bombardment for which it has no defenses. It was a diabolical idea, since the gravity well of the Earth was used to accelerate the already enormous velocity of the lunar railgun's projectiles. Straczynski picked up on the idea in the second season of Babylon Five, where an alien space fleet uses mass drivers for planetary bombardment, literally using asteroids to bomb its enemy into a depopulated stone age.
That's science fiction. But if you've been following some of my blogs over the years related to the dangers of weaponizing space, you'll see the relevance of railguns/mass drivers to the affidavit of Dr. Carol Rosin, and to the statements of Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev shortly before the Chelyabinsk meteor incident in February 2013. Dr. Rosin, you'll recall, maintained that Dr. Wernher von Braun told her shortly before his death that the effort to weaponize space would be promoted in five phases in the following order: as a defense against (1) Communism, (2) terrorists, (3) "nations of concern", (4) asteroids, and finally (5) extra-terrestrials. Railguns/mass drivers are the original "rod of God" technology, able to fire projectiles whose sheer mass-energy kinetic impact can rip through the strongest armor, or, if large enough, asteroids. And as I've also pointed out, Dmitri Medvedev called for an international planetary asteroid defense system prior to the Chelyabinsk incident. When queried about what sorts of weapons would be involved, Medvedev stated that themornuclear armed missiles could be fired at asteroids to destroy them, and then went on to indicate other means, which were unspecified. Railguns/mass drivers would certainly fall into that unspecified category.
And let it be noted: this is not a technology that we need to guess at; it already exists. The real question is not whether it exists, but how far it has been taken. There are some - myself included - who entertain the idea that the Chinese chemical plant explosions may actually have been a demonstration of the "rod of God" techn0logy, for one simple reason: in the first of those explosions, the crater left was very narrow and deep, not the type of crater signature that would typically result from a chemical explosion. Then there were the strange remarks made by general Mattis to the reporter who asked him if a military response to North Korean provocations might include "kenetic weapons," i.e., railguns/mass drivers/"rod of God" weapons. Mattis' affirmative reply no doubt had them burning the midnight oil in Pyongyang and Beijing.
So why am I exercised about this article? Simple: because we've been given a clue how weaponizing space will be "sold" to a skeptical public: we need such technologies for mining and exploiting space assets. And, oh, look! This technology could not only launch stuff into space, but could do double duty as an asteroid-busting defense system. It's not a weapon; it's a launch system (shades of Gerald Bull).
The bottom line? I suspect this is the beginning of yet another "meme" that we'll be hearing more and more of, as talk about the technology is gradually ramped up to accustom the general population to the idea that it could be used to mine asteroids, as well as bust them apart if need be.
See you on the flip side...