During the Cold War, when a nuclear war between the US and Soviet Union did not appear out of the question, the US Air Force looked into an unusual defense strategy.
According to Daniel Ellsberg, a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation who says in 2017 book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner that he reviewed those plans, the US looked into stopping the Earth’s rotation momentarily.
“The officer originating this proposal envisioned that if our Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) radars detected and reported on the huge viewing screens at NORAD a large flight of missile warheads coming across the North Pole from the Soviet Union – aimed at our missile fields in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Missouri – the array of Atlas engines would be fired, as near simultaneously as possible, to stop the Earth’s rotation momentarily,” Daniel Ellsberg wrote, as per the Daily Grail.
“The Soviet missiles, on their inertial path, would thus bypass or overfly their intended targets. Our land-based retaliatory force would be saved, to carry out – presumably, when things had settled down and Earth was again spinning normally – a retaliatory attack against the cities and soft military targets (their missiles having already left their hardened silos) in the Soviet Union.”
Look, nobody wants to get nuked. Getting hit by a mushroom cloud is pretty much top of everyone’s “not a fan of that” list. But what the US Air Force proposed was worse for the planet, which you might have noticed includes the USA, than simply taking the hit.
Doing the math, Ellsberg found that it would require 2.6 x 1021 kilograms (5.7 x 1021 pounds) of propellant, which is “about 500 times the mass of the Earth’s atmosphere”.
“Assuming you could build that many engines, once you fired them for the time that was needed to change the Earth’s rotation, you would have put 500 times as much gas into the atmosphere, and this would all be incredibly hot combustion products,” Ellsberg wrote.
“So even if your targets were to survive the nuclear war, everyone would then be incinerated by all the exhaust gases spreading around the planet.”
If you survive the incineration – and Ellsberg suggests you wouldn’t – that isn’t the end of your problems. The Earth’s rotation is slowed and sped up by various factors, including earthquakes, and you don’t really notice other than ever so slightly different day lengths. If the Earth were to stop suddenly, though, it would be a different matter entirely.
Picture you are on a roundabout and spinning around, and suddenly the roundabout is stopped, while you continue to move. While you would probably injure yourself as your momentum forces you into or over the bars, you can thank your lucky stars that the roundabout wasn’t spinning at 460 meters (1,509 feet) per second.
Water, rocks and other debris would be sent flying eastwards at speeds of 1,610 kilometers per hour (1,000 miles per hour), tearing up the surface and sending more shards of Earth and rock into the atmosphere and space.
James Zimbelman, senior geologist emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C, told Live Science that these fragments would then be pulled back by the Earth’s gravity, bombarding the planet over time and liquefying the Earth’s crust into a molten “ocean of rock”.
In short, even if it were possible to stop the Earth’s rotation and sent the nukes flying overhead, the US would only have had a few moments of celebration before the atmosphere turned into an incredibly unsafe sauna and the ground into hot soup.
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