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During the Cold War, one of the main reasons for space exploration was military/propaganda purposes. One of the things that the US was worried about was the prospect of a nuclear bomb being dropped from a satellite.

It seems to me, however, that the bomb would simply burn up in the upper atmosphere. Would it be possible to drop a nuclear bomb from space onto the Earth, and have it work as expected?

I'm looking for more of a 'how' answer - maybe citing research?

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Yes it is possible to develop such a weapon. Example: Fractional Orbital Bombardment System

It consists of a rocket and a warhead. The rocket would place the warhead into LEO where small on-board thrusters would guide the the warhead into place for it's controlled descent to the target. There was also a thermal protection system required but overall, this system was not very precise.

They are not operational now. Their development was halted after the outer space and SALT 2 treaties. These agreements prohibit weapons of mass destruction in outer space.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm interested in more details about the how - not about the politics :) $\endgroup$ – Undo Aug 25 '13 at 12:34
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Of course, you can't simply "drop" the bomb — it would just stay in the same orbit as the satellite. The bomb would need a propulsion system (rocket) to decelerate. But this would certainly be possible.

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Why would you want a satellite for that?

I mean: launch a typical carrier rocket with a nuclear missile much smaller than your typical ICBM as the last stage. Once it's in orbit, cut the engine off, and possibly fire it every few months to compensate for orbital decay. If the war comes, deorbit into enemy territory. In case you're about to run out of fuel, deorbit without arming the warhead, into sea area where it would be easy to recover.

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    $\begingroup$ In that case your ICBM in orbit would technically be a satellite. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Nov 13 '13 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Philipp: Yes, but you don't launch the bomb from the satellite. You just launch the satellite. $\endgroup$ – SF. Nov 13 '13 at 12:58
  • $\begingroup$ Launching from a satellite lets you target any point under the satellites orbit fairly quickly. If you have enough satellites, you can probably target any point in the world more quickly than you could by launching from the ground. And the initial launch from a satellite, since it requires much less delta-V than a ground launch, might be more difficult to detect. In short, it could be useful if your existing collection of hair-trigger ICBMs and SLBMs just isn't subtle enough. $\endgroup$ – Keith Thompson Nov 15 '13 at 0:14
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithThompson: But what would be the function of the satellite itself? A dead-weight launch platform? What are the advantages of having a satellite carrying the missiles versus just the missiles in the orbit? $\endgroup$ – SF. Nov 15 '13 at 7:01
  • $\begingroup$ "Once it's in orbit" is the problem. Getting to orbiting altitude takes hardly any fuel compared to getting that high and then getting fast enough to stay in orbit. $\endgroup$ – Camille Goudeseune Dec 13 '13 at 19:00
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A system similar to what you would need for orbital bombardment was developed by the US for espionage satellites. The KH-9 Hexagon carried four film capsules, which would be ejected from the satellite to reenter the atmosphere so the film could be recovered.
Basically you need two things for an orbital bombardment system:

  1. A heat shield that allows the bomb to survive reentry. This should be well within current technology, we can get (fragile) humans back from space in one piece after all. Ballistic missiles already use heat shield for their warheads, these are rated for the lower reentry speed of an ICBM.
  2. A trajectory control system that allows reentry in a small target area. Again, the reentry of manned space capsules shows that this is doable.

As others have said, a satellite isn't strictly necessary, you could launch each bomb with reentry vehicle by itself (or deploy a group of them from a single launch).

A final issue is how the fissile material would stand up to space radiation. Would it cause extra decay of the uranium, making the bomb less effective over time?

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  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't think that space radiation would have any significant effect on the decay of uranium or plutonium. $\endgroup$ – Keith Thompson Nov 15 '13 at 0:14

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