Let’s hope the words, “commence the orbital bombardment” don’t enter our vernacular in the near future. Imagine a bundle of metal telephone poles dropped from Earth’s orbit onto a target. They’d reach a speed of Mach 10 and have the impact of a nuclear weapon, minus the radiation. This is the basic concept behind a project called both “Thor” and “Rods From God,” originally envisioned by Jerry Pournelle and referenced in U.S. Air Force documents within the last decade.
Pournelle is an engineer, science writer and science-fiction author. He has degrees in experimental statistics, systems engineering, psychology and political science. In the 1960s he was employed by Boeing to develop the aerospace industry. It was there that he came up with the simple (yet terrifying) idea of dropping heavy metal from outer space to kill people. Since then, Pournelle is better known for his sci-fi novels and a monthly column called “Computing At Chaos Manor,” running since 1979. Pournelle’s also attracted attention from politicians for years now. In 1984 Ronald Reagan applauded his tract “Mutual Assured Survival: A Space-Age Solution to Nuclear Annihilation.” Pournelle had an even closer relationship to Newt Gingrich; the two even worked together on a novel called “The Faction” at one point. So far unpublished, the premise of their story was that the Yakuza team up with big corporations to overthrow the government with “kinetic-kill type weapons.” Sound familiar? They’re the same “Rods From God” Pournelle proposed in the sixties.
Here’s how they’d work. Two satellites in orbit would work together, one doing the targeting and communications, while the other carries a bundle of tungsten rods, 20 feet long (6.1 meters) and 1 foot (.3 meters) in diameter. Give the order and 15 minutes later the satellites drop the rods on their target, at a speed of 36,000 feet (10,973 meters) per second. On impact the rod’s kinetic energy generates a massive destructive force on par with a meteor strike. The attraction for the military is that these rods could penetrate deeply buried bunkers without irradiating the location. Another benefit? Dropping high-velocity death metal doesn’t violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
So why aren’t we already doing this? It seems simple enough, but launching the heavy tungsten rods into space appears to be extremely expensive. There’s also something called the “absentee ratio,” meaning that because satellites circle the planet every 100 minutes they won’t always be in position to hit their desired target. So a lot of satellites (and rods) would have to be strategically positioned to improve their efficiency. There’s also some concern that even giant tungsten rods would vaporize on impact. So they’d require retrorockets to slow their re-entry. Some have proposed attaching the rods to an intercontinental ballistic missile instead, but those could be detected and mistaken for a nuclear assault.
Regardless, it appears the U.S. is researching a way to make these hypervelocity kinetic harpoons work. It might sound like an easy way to dispense of American enemies, but if the U.S. is working on the concept you can bet others are too. The question is, what’s more difficult? Building nuclear weapons? Or launching metal telephone poles into space?