Monday, October 04, 2004

Seetee Shock 

When any demented tinpot dictator can put his hands on half a dozen nuclear bombs, there is no longer any prestige in maintaining a vast arsenal of such frankly déclassé weapons; don't we, as citizens of the world's sole remaining superpower, deserve something a little more cutting-edge? Back in July we reported on the Active Denial System, a purportedly nonlethal energy beam that induces excruciating pain by instantaneously heating the water molecules in the target's flesh to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. But weaponry of the lethal persuasion is by no means being ignored, as Keay Davidson of the S.F. Chronicle reveals below; the military is hard at work researching the destructive potential of antimatter, which could make our primitive thermonuclear devices look like Pop Rocks by comparison:
The most powerful potential energy source presently thought to be available to humanity, antimatter is a term normally heard in science-fiction films and TV shows, whose heroes fly "antimatter-powered spaceships" and do battle with "antimatter guns."

But antimatter itself isn't fiction; it actually exists and has been intensively studied by physicists since the 1930s. In a sense, matter and antimatter are the yin and yang of reality: Every type of subatomic particle has its antimatter counterpart. But when matter and antimatter collide, they annihilate each other in an immense burst of energy . . . .

More cataclysmic possible uses include a new generation of super weapons -- either pure antimatter bombs or antimatter-triggered nuclear weapons; the former wouldn't emit radioactive fallout. Another possibility is antimatter- powered "electromagnetic pulse" weapons that could fry an enemy's electric power grid and communications networks, leaving him literally in the dark and unable to operate his society and armed forces.

Following an initial inquiry from The Chronicle this summer, the Air Force forbade its employees from publicly discussing the antimatter research program. Still, details on the program appear in numerous Air Force documents distributed over the Internet prior to the ban.

These include an outline of a March 2004 speech by an Air Force official who, in effect, spilled the beans about the Air Force's high hopes for antimatter weapons. On March 24, Kenneth Edwards, director of the "revolutionary munitions" team at the Munitions Directorate at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida was keynote speaker at the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) conference in Arlington, Va. . . . .

It almost defies belief, the amount of explosive force available in a speck of antimatter -- even a speck that is too small to see. For example: One millionth of a gram of positrons contain as much energy as 37.8 kilograms (83 pounds) of TNT, according to Edwards' March speech. A simple calculation, then, shows that about 50-millionths of a gram could generate a blast equal to the explosion (roughly 4,000 pounds of TNT, according to the FBI) at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Unlike regular nuclear bombs, positron bombs wouldn't eject plumes of radioactive debris. When large numbers of positrons and antielectrons collide, the primary product is an invisible but extremely dangerous burst of gamma radiation. Thus, in principle, a positron bomb could be a step toward one of the military's dreams from the early Cold War: a so-called "clean" superbomb that could kill large numbers of soldiers without ejecting radioactive contaminants over the countryside.

A copy of Edwards' speech on NIAC's Web site emphasizes this advantage of positron weapons in bright red letters: "No Nuclear Residue" . . . .

[Washington State physicist Kelvin] Lynn is enthusiastic about antimatter because he believes it could propel futuristic space rockets.

"I think," he said, "we need to get off this planet, because I'm afraid we're going to destroy it."
One large drawback to antimatter technology is the staggering cost of manufacturing the stuff. At present, one billion dollars will buy you just under seventeen billionths of a gram.

Of course, prices will drop once production ramps up. Who wants to bet our friends at the Pentagon won't be able to rustle up the dough?

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