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Skyfall

Note: This is a NATO designator for a Russian surface-to-surface missile and has nothing to do with a James Bond movie.

Failed missile test:

London and Moscow (CNN) — An explosion. An abruptly-canceled village evacuation. Five dead nuclear experts. And a few traces of radioactive iodine in the air over the northern Norwegian coastline.

These are the fingerprints of what appears to have been Russia’s latest failed bid to test its Burevestnik missile, also known as Skyfall.

It’s claimed by its owner, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to have unlimited range and be able to outflank all US air defenses. But this month, it proved, for a Kremlin keen to emphasize its growing military muscle, yet another high-profile hiccup.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a test of the missile wasn’t entirely successful, according to US officials.

The 9M370 Burevestnik, or SSC-X-9 Skyfall, is a cruise missile that is supposed to have unlimited range, meaning it can loiter almost indefinitely before striking its target. It would appear that it launches with auxiliary rocket engines and then continues flying using air heated by a small nuclear reactor to stay airborne. The Soviets used reactors to power some of their satellites, making life a bit risky when they eventually de-orbit and return to earth.

As a weapons system, the nuclear heating of the air to power the device would leave a radioactive trail making them rather easy to detect and target. These are disasters waiting to happen. Calling them Буревестник (Storm Petrel) is a nice Soviet act of remembrance of the 1905 poem of Maxim Gorki that has been used for numerous Soviet Naval weapons systems, but more accurate for this system given the design calls for lingering in the air.

6 comments

1 Badtux { 08.20.19 at 1:17 am }

Nothing I’ve been reading about this supposed weapons system makes any sense. My suspicion is that it might be powered by a Stirling radioisotope generator, but this power source would provide only enough power for a lightweight propeller powered drone once you consider the weight of the nuclear power source. And such drones are sitting ducks for any military power with a working air defense system since they’re slow and hot.

Right now I’m thinking this is a combination of Russian sabre-rattling trying to seem like they’re more advanced than they really are, and U.S. military complicity in that sabre-rattling to pump up the Russian threat so they can get a bigger military budget. But that’s just based on what I know about the technological basis of what they’re trying to do. Unless they’ve made some sort of breakthroughs in physics or materials science, what they say they’re doing, and what they’re actually doing, can’t be the same things.

2 Bryan { 08.20.19 at 3:20 pm }

The JATO/RATO-Ramjet system is common for long range anti-aircraft missiles like the US BOMARC and the Soviet Ganef systems, so it would be a known starting point for development. Using a plutonium reactor to heat the air to provide the thrust in a ramjet is a great concept on paper. The problem is how to keep the reactor from going critical. The problems with the radioactivity are ignored for later. Ramjets are much happier at Mach 2 than subsonic, and staying “below the radar” at Mach 2 is not easy when you are lighting your trail with a radioactive plume that will be tripping sensors around the world and in orbit.

From the video it looks like the auxiliary rocket(s) exploded and breached the nuclear container. It looked like a liquid-fueled rocket explosion, which is a terrible idea in these hybrid systems.

3 Badtux { 08.20.19 at 11:33 pm }

The problem with using a plutonium reactor to heat the air to provide the thrust in a ramjet is simple — weight. Plutonium is extremely dense (duh?), so a significant amount of plutonium to provide a significant amount of heat would result in something that can’t get off the ground. Especially if you provide sufficient radiation shielding so that it doesn’t kill the ground crew while they’re prepping it for launch!

If you *are* going to try it, plutonium is the obvious choice, because it won’t go critical in an air-cooled reactor unless you have so much plutonium that your rocket won’t get off the ground. Highly enriched U-235 on the other hand can go critical if you drop it. But… I’m still highly skeptical. This has been the holy grail of long range aircraft and rocket design since the 1950’s, and the laws of physics haven’t changed between then and now.

4 Bryan { 08.21.19 at 12:01 am }

The Soviet/Russian military is not known for its “Safety First” philosophy. Their rocket and torpedo fuels are not known for stability. If they attempted an Orion drive it wouldn’t be out of line for Russians. They have a tendency to believe in a lot of flaky concepts. That’s why Rasputin was part of the inner circle of the court of Tsar Nikolai II.

I don’t see a solution for the weight problem. Missile carrying submarines fill the same role. With half the US population living within 50 miles of the coast, submarines would seem to be a better choice for an adversary.

5 Kryten42 { 08.25.19 at 8:47 pm }

Seems Putin & Trumpelstiltskin could be a lot more alike than suspected. Have you seen the latest commentary from Dotard where someone whispered into his tiny brain that they could drop a nuke into a Hurricane, such as Irene, to stop it?

A nice succinct article in Mother Jones, with links about why that:
a) can’t/won’t work,
b) is a REALLY stupid idea (because, you know… SCIENCE & the laws of physics!)

Can You Nuke a Hurricane?

6 Bryan { 08.25.19 at 9:23 pm }

Increasing the heat available will logically make the hurricane worse. Hurricanes fade because of friction with the land, upper level wind shear, cold water, or dry air. Now, if they could tow an ice berg in front of the storm that might help, but not heating the water and air with a nuclear device. What do they want, another dead zone like the one east of the Urals? Bloody amateurs!

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