We all lose small things from time to time. Sometimes, misplaced matters can be a little more serious: losing species is never great, even if it’s just through genetic testing, and no one ever wants to lose the world’s only sample of metallic hydrogen.
For now, though, it looks like the Russian armed forces are topping the bill: CNBC, citing anonymous US intelligence sources, reports that they are looking for a “nuclear-powered” missile that was lost at sea – perhaps one of four. There’s a high chance that they’ll never find it, or them.
Earlier this year, Vladimir Putin gave a bellicose speech, claiming that weapons experts were developing a cruise missile, powered by nuclear tech, that could hit any point on Earth. Plenty of speculation then began as to how exactly such a weapon could work, but – as pointed out in this excellent Vox piece – it’s not really worth losing any sleep over.
Sure, these cruise missiles, if capable of hitting any target on Earth as was suggested, sound scary, but new weapons are being developed all the time by Russia, China, and the US in particular. Plenty of scary headlines about Russian supersonic or even hypersonic arsenals keep cropping up, but many leave out or are unaware of the fact that this technology is again being developed by those other nations too.
Putin’s springtime speech was partly designed to inspire fear, both in its enemies and in its own populace, who are often told that they are at risk of an attack. More fear works well for authoritarian regimes, particularly in the run-up to already rigged elections. (Putin’s speech was on March 1, just 17 days before the elections.)
In any case, these missiles were being built. Plans for such missiles have been around since the 1950s, when the US first took on the idea. Per ArsTechnica, the idea was to essentially swap out the conventional combustion engine in a jet or missile and instead put in a nuclear reactor, providing thrust and maintaining very long-term fuel supplies.
Plenty of missiles have a limited range partly because they run out of the limited liquid supply they’re carrying. Nuclear-powered missiles, then, could perhaps hit any target at any distance they wished.
The US ultimately abandoned the idea, partly because they deemed it to be impractical and partly because spraying radioactive waste across the missile’s flight path wasn’t exactly ideal. Russia, however, appear to be giving it a go, but it’s entirely uncertain as to how far they’ve got.
Either way, a few tests of their best efforts to date – which may or may not have working nuclear thrust mechanisms in place – took place between November 2017 and February 2018. They were designed to assess their aerodynamics and launch capabilities, and none of them were armed with a nuclear warhead.
All four launches ended in crashes, with the best of them flying a few tens of kilometers into the air before crashing into the Barents Sea, between Russia and Norway. Now, Russia is hoping to recover one.
The Verge explains that, although there are some comparisons to the retrieval of sunken, damaged nuclear submarines, recovery of a nuclear-powered missile is a new dilemma.
Does Russia have the ability to find a missile like this at the bottom of the sea? Is the missile leaking radiation? It will likely not do much damage to the sea, even if it is radioactive: the Barents is far too sizeable to worry about that. The primary worry here is the risk to the people that are trying to recover it.