Episode #30: Nukes vs. Asteroids

In this episode, we place bets on the biggest fight in the cinematic universe: nuclear weapons vs. asteroids. What do the movies Armageddon, Deep Impact, and Meteor tell us about how planet Earth will defend itself against space rocks? How effective would nukes in these doomsday scenarios? How can we thank the dinosaurs for becoming oil so that the drill team in Armageddon learned the skills necessary to save us from another asteroid extinction event? Tim Westmyer and returning special guest Boris (@bmelnikov) answer these questions and more.

Before we decide to violate the Outer Space Treaty, we recommend checking out:

Death Stars: The Ultimate WMD


I (Tim) wrote an article for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (the keepers of the Doomsday Clock!) about the appropriation of nuclear weapon imagery and themes in Rogue One and Star Wars. I am talking about the Death Star, of course.

Here is a highlight:

The central plot of Rogue One involves our heroes stealing the blueprints to a new secret weapon of the evil Galactic Empire: the Death Star, a moon-sized, space-based battle station equipped with a laser capable of destroying an entire planet in a single stroke. There is hope that the plans could hold the key to finding a weakness in the station that could be exploited by the Rebellion to start a “chain reaction” and put an end to the weapon.

The Death Star, in Star Wars generally and particularly in Rogue One, serves as a stand-in for the nuclear weapons arsenal with all the accompanying nuclear imagery, deterrence theory, and dangers shown to the audience. Rogue One deploys the Death Star as a visual, technical, and thematic stand-in for thermonuclear weapons.

To read the full article, click here. Joel and I also did a podcast episode on this idea, which you can listen to by clicking here or on iTunes, GooglePlay Music, etc. Enjoy!

Why Matt Damon is Not a Space Pirate…Just a Space Felon


Our latest podcast episode on the nuclear nonsense in The Martian (2015) has space/maritime law guru Chris Mirasola get super critical about why Matt Damon might not actually be a space pirate.

Here is a great write-up of his argument:

“I love The Martian. However, until they find a way to introduce water to the surface of Mars we aren’t going to be getting any space pirates.

In the 1980s, the international community signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Think of it like the world’s constitution for the oceans. UNCLOS (as it’s called for short) outlines rules applicable to different maritime zones extending from a country’s coastline. All of these zones are explicitly defined as zones ‘in the sea.’

So The Martian made two interpretive errors here when it claimed that mars is international waters: 1) it mistakenly used rules that apply only to maritime zones to a place (Mars) where there is no marine environment, and 2) it overlooked the fact that UNCLOS rules are defined with reference to maritime zones extending from a country’s coast. No countries, no maritime zones.

Our Martian should have instead looked to the Outer Space Treaty for the applicable international rules. The movie is correct that countries cannot be sovereign over any extraterrestrial body. And countries retain jurisdiction over all their objects in space (it doesn’t matter that NASA is nonmilitary).

So the question becomes whether, for the purposes of U.S. domestic law, Mark Whatley (Matt Damon’s character) is illegally commandeering a vessel when he steps into the ARES 4 MAV without first getting permission from NASA. This might be true, though the Outer Space Treaty provides that all countries should give all feasible assistance to astronauts in distress. But even if he was violating U.S. law it would only make him a space felon — not a space pirate.

And while Matt Damon’s activity might violate NASA regulations, I’m guessing they wouldn’t be bringing disciplinary action anytime soon.”

Listen to the full Mini-Nuke Episode by clicking here.

Low Yield Hot Take: Batman v Superman – Dawn of Justice


After watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Nuclear Injustice, the movie made some “interesting” choices for how to portray nuclear weapons, but probably not enough nonsense for a whole episode. Here are some initial thoughts by podcast host Tim.

Warning: spoilers for one scene that surprisingly ends up not mattering at all for the plot.

1) The U.S. military fires a land based ICBM armed with a nuclear warhead to hit Superman and Doomsday as they’re fighting in space. Not only does the ICBM fly faster than any missile I’ve ever heard of, it travels in a non-ballistic path (with course correction?) toward objects moving in a non-predictable path.

ICBMs follow ballistic paths and are used against ground targets like cities that tend not to move, unless you’re talking about the miniaturized city of Kandor that Superman keeps in a bottle. The nuclear missile in the movie detonates right when it nears the moving fight — I’d love to see its targeting parameters.

2) The film does that Hollywood trick where nuclear warheads traveling through space look like bulky cruise missiles and not like big ice cream cones. The director probably wanted the missile to look visually similar to the Soviet nuclear ICBM Superman intercepts that was headed for a U.S. military base in The Dark Knight Returns (TDKR) comic.


Maybe it was just a case of movie copying another inaccurate visual, but the weapon in the comic was especially made to have a bigger environmental impact and larger than normal EMP effects, so maybe the comic version was also a special secret cruise missile instead of a traditional ICBM?

3) It is funny how our Space Situational Awareness can detect two people barreling through space accurately enough to target with a missile but not be able to track Superman when he flies to his apartment or his Fortress of Solitude.

4) The lack of EMP effects from the high attitude nuclear detonation is in contrast to the warhead in TDKR, which cuts off power in the United States and supposedly disables U.S. nuclear launch capabilities, leaving them vulnerable to the USSR nuclear force.

5) Luckily Russia and China did not freak out when the U.S. launched a nuclear armed missile at Superman. Hopefully they gave Beijing and Moscow a heads up first.

6) I was also amazed the movie plot included a discussion of import/export controls on sensitive materials, just with WMD material substituted for kryptonite.

It seems the director, Zack Snyder, really wanted to mesh together the nuclear weapon panels of TDKR and Superman/Doomsday comics, but the final product just looked weird and warranted a small rant. Podcast co-host Joel was much less annoyed by the movie, but what else is new? 

On the other hand, Superman IV is bursting with nuclear nonsense, so we’ll be sure to cover that movie soon.

UPDATE: Joel and Tim did a podcast episode on this. Check it out here for more on the nuclear nonsense in this movie.