The Lucifer Project

Some believe that NASA is trying to turn Saturn or Jupiter into a small sun.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Conspiracies

Skeptoid #143
March 3, 2009
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One of the most dramatic events in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey series of books happens in the second installment, 2010: Odyssey Two. The strange alien monolith orbiting Jupiter somehow replicates itself billions of times, apparently using matter from Jupiter itself, condensing the gas giant down into a smaller, denser, hotter mass until it suddenly achieves sustained nuclear fusion. Thus, Jupiter fulfills the destiny denied it by nature as what some astronomers have termed a "failed star". This new star brings life to its constellation of Earth-like moons, becoming a solar system within a solar system, and is named Lucifer by the people of Earth, who henceforth have two suns in the sky.

Jupiter was not moving from its immemorial orbit, but it was doing something almost as impossible. It was shrinking — so swiftly that its edge was creeping across the field even as he focused upon it. At the same time the planet was brightening, from its dull gray to a pearly white. Surely, it was more brilliant than it had ever been in the long years that Man had observed it...

Most of us consider this the stuff of science fiction; there are too many physical reasons why it couldn't actually happen, a few of which are raised by Clarke's characters as they witness the event incredulously. However, a number of conspiracy theorists (most of the variety who still believe in the Face on Mars) believe that this is not only possible, but that it is an actual project in the works at NASA. And, moreover, that what they term "The Lucifer Project" has already been attempted.

Details vary, the most significant of which is the confusion over whether Lucifer would involve Jupiter or Saturn. The Space Odyssey movies and books all use Jupiter, except for the original book, which was based on an early version of Clarke and Kubrick's screenplay that used Saturn (Saturn's rings later proved too great of a special effects challenge). Many of the modern conspiracy theories bring the story back around to Saturn as well, but really for all practical purposes we're talking about "a gas giant", think of either Saturn or Jupiter, whichever you please. Doesn't make much difference as far as reality is concerned.

The main element of these deep-space NASA missions that fuels the conspiracy is the RTGs, or radioisotope thermoelectric generators, that power space probes such as Cassini, Galileo, Voyager, and others. Past Mars there's not enough sunlight to provide the power a spacecraft needs, and so these RTGs are the only option we have. We've mentioned them before on Skeptoid: Russia has used similar generators to power about 150 lighthouses along its extremely remote northern coast. Heat from a radioactive element, usually plutonium-238, goes through a thermocouple, which is a material that produces a direct electrical current when heat is applied to it. RTGs have no moving parts and are extremely simple and reliable.

Believers in the Lucifer Project conjecture that such a payload of radioactive material would act like an atomic bomb in the high-pressure depths of a gas giant, and they suppose that this would somehow ignite the entire planet, turning the whole thing into a small star. This would act as a sun for its moons, turning them into habitable worlds. Saturn's moon Titan is usually cited, the claim being that NASA plans to turn it into a human colony for some unknown nefarious purpose.

In 2003, the Galileo spacecraft's mission was ended by deliberately crashing it into Jupiter, in order to absolutely avoid any possibility of contaminating Jupiter's moons with bacteria from Earth. A guy named Jacco van der Worp, now an advocate for the 2012 apocalypse, went on the Coast to Coast AM radio program and claimed that such a collision would cause the plutonium in the RTGs to immediately implode, triggering an atomic explosion. Recall our old friend Richard Hoagland, the space conspiracy theorist who believes that many of the features found on Mars are ruins of ancient civilizations, and that NASA is covering it up. He heard of van der Worp's idea and ate it up, claiming that a mysterious black spot that appeared briefly on Jupiter's surface a month later was evidence of this explosion. Hoagland asserts that Galileo would have broken up in Jupiter's atmosphere, and that it would have taken one month for the plutonium capsules to fall through Jupiter's increasingly dense atmosphere until such a pressure was reached that the capsules would implode. Hoagland concludes that the protection of Jupiter's moons from contamination was just a cover story for NASA's attempted creation of Lucifer.

The Cassini orbiter at Saturn is scheduled to terminate in 2012, however NASA has not yet decided whether to crash it into a smaller moon (where RTG contamination is not a problem) or to leave it in a high parking orbit. Saturn's rings make an approach for a Galileo-style crash into the gas giant too difficult.

There are a number of differences between an RTG and an atomic or thermonuclear warhead. The grade of plutonium is one difference. The RTG uses reactor grade plutonium, while a weapon uses weapon-grade plutonium. The difference is that weapon grade contains less than 7% Pu-240. Reactor grade has more. Not only does this make a chain reaction more difficult to sustain, it also makes the material more radioactive and more difficult to work with and store. In 1977, the United States declassified a 1962 underground nuclear test at the Nevada test site in which non-weapon grade plutonium was used. Although the explosive yield was quite low, the test proved that the plutonium grade alone doesn't disprove the Lucifer conjecture.

But the main reason that an RTG could not explode like a weapon is its structure. Each of Cassini's three RTGs contains 72 marshmallow-sized pellets of plutonium, each weighing about 150 grams, and each separately enclosed in iridium inside a shock-proof graphite impact shell. Four of each of these are enclosed within one of 18 separate General Purpose Heat Shell modules, each with its own separate heat shield and impact shell. Should any kind of crash or problem happen, including breaking up during a re-entry, these impact shells separate from each other and scatter.

Conversely, in order to detonate Pu-238, you need a single critical mass of solid plutonium weighing at least 10 kg. This critical mass has to be imploded with a simultaneous explosion from all sides, applying sudden pressure precisely from all angles at the same exact instant. Obviously this couldn't happen with an RTG design. Although each RTG does theoretically have enough plutonium to make up a critical mass, there isn't any way that it could all be brought together into the right shape. An implosion triggered atomic device needs to have its critical mass in a very specific configuration. Any type of pressure or crash event has already sent all the separate impact shells scattering about space, and each is far too small to ever achieve critical mass and implode. No way, no how, physics simply do not make it possible for a chunk of less than critical mass to initiate a chain reaction, no matter what environment it's put in.

Proponents of the NASA conspiracy state that the high pressure of the deep atmosphere inside a gas giant will provide the implosion pressure, but they do not offer a solution for the critical mass problem. I searched and searched, and the best document I could find by conspiracy theorists, by an anonymous author, admits that the pellets are 150 grams but states that plutonium-238 requires only 200 grams to reach critical mass. This is simply wrong, but even if it were true, 150 is still less than 200. However the author seems to simply ignore this, skips over it, and says that a 600 kiloton explosion would result.

So let's grant that an RTG could somehow result in a 600 kiloton atomic explosion on a gas giant. This is only a tiny fraction of the firepower of some of the thermonuclear tests done on Earth, the largest being the Soviet Union's 1961 Tsar Bomba shot with a yield of 50 megatons. That didn't turn the Earth into a small sun, it was a barely visible pinprick on our gigantic planet. So why would this far, far smaller explosion have such a drastic effect on a gas giant? Well, like our sun, the gas giants are composed largely of hydrogen and helium. In the intensely confined pressure inside an atomic explosion, fusion happens among these elements and causes the runaway thermonuclear chain reaction. In a nuclear explosion on Earth, this chain reaction quickly runs out, because of a lack of pressure and fuel. But inside the sun, there is tremendous fuel available and tremendous pressure from the sun's powerful, crushing gravity. This is called gravitational confinement, and it's the reason the sun's nuclear reaction is ongoing.

Stars that are less massive than the sun have less gravity. Beyond a certain limit, they have inadequate gravitational confinement. These are called brown dwarfs. Because of their density and gravity, all brown dwarfs happen to be about the same physical size as Jupiter. However their mass ranges from 1 to about 90 Jupiter masses. Above this limit, they would have adequate gravitational confinement and could sustain fusion. But inside this range, at which Jupiter is at the extreme lowest end, they don't and can't. Some astronomers don't make a clear distinction between what constitutes a gas giant and what constitutes a brown dwarf, but one feature they share is mass that's way too low for sustaining fusion. An atomic or even thermonuclear explosion inside Jupiter would fizzle out the same way it does on Earth. Saturn, with less than a third of Jupiter's mass, is even farther from achieving gravitational confinement.

Even Arthur C. Clarke didn't pretend that his fiction was plausible. At Lucifer's ignition, one of Clarke's Russian scientists, Vasili, said:

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Oh, I can see a dozen objections — how would they get past the iron minimum; what about radiative transfer; Chandrasekhar's limit.

And like Vasili, we've only touched upon a couple of the problems, but certainly among the most intractable for those who believe that our tiny little space probes are the harbingers of planetary death and new solar systems. Enjoy your science fiction stories and enjoy the science coming back through Cassini's telemetry, but please don't confuse the two. Saturn and Jupiter are here to stay.

Brian Dunning

© 2009 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Beatty, J., Petersen, C., Chaikin, A. The new solar system 4th Edition. Cambridge: Sky Publishing Corporation, 1999. 194-195.

Blanchard, A. et al. Updated Critical Mass Estimates for Plutonium-238. Aiken, SC: Westinghouse Savannah River Company, 1999.

Griffin, Michael D.; French, James R. Space Vehicle Design Second Edition. Reston: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc, 2004. 497-500.

NASA. "Spacecraft Power for Cassini." NASA Fact Sheet. NASA, 1 Jul. 1999. Web. 16 Jan. 2010. <http://georgenet.net/hubble/cassini_pdf/power.pdf>

O'Neill, Ian. "Project Lucifer: Will Cassini Turn Saturn into a Second Sun? (Part 1)." Universe Today. Universe Today, 24 Jul. 2008. Web. 15 Jan. 2010. <http://www.universetoday.com/2008/07/24/project-lucifer-will-cassini-turn-saturn-into-a-second-sun-part-1/>

Planning & Human Systems, Inc. Atomic Power In Space: A History. Washingon, DC: U.S. Department of Energy, 1987.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Lucifer Project." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 3 Mar 2009. Web. 23 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4143>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 63 comments

I have to say here...I read Macky's post and unless I am reading it in a mandarin translation it looks like fair comment except for the sublime firecracker comment..My daughter can hold a fire cracker in her mouth..glad she despises smoking!

btw, Pu 238 doesn't boom..actually Pu 239 woulnt boom under jovian observable surface conditions. Macky is 6000% correct. Science fiction has a hell of a lot to answer for!

Clearly Macky revised his view after my criticism of his lack of differentiation between fusion/fission devices elsewhere.

Mind you, I am glad we havent sent our nuclear arsenal into space. Theres a hell of a lot of perfectly good reactor fuel in that cold war collection. Our "spent waste" can fuel us for 1000's of years in appropriate waste burners.

If nuclear waste isnt gold..nuclear war head is golds gold only to make more nuclear waste to be burned as virtually free energy..

Some times my biases come to the fore..

But think about it..who of us old folks would have thought in 1975 that in 2010 china would be building the odd waste burner???

Times change and the then bad guys are now doing all the good things we dreamt of

The lucifer project is and was pure fiction and possibly at the Dr Who level (fun stuff for sunday crisps).

Mud (Dr Syd), sin seetee, Oz
November 15, 2012 11:18am

"Clearly Macky revised his view after my criticism of his lack of differentiation between fusion/fission devices elsewhere."

Where was that ?

Macky, Auckland
December 6, 2012 11:39pm

Homework Macky. homework...

Please keep closer tabs on what you post elsewhere in skeptoid. I'd hate to have to repost your comments and be accused of "corporate behaviour" and have you "contact the internet" to complain..

Mud, Sin City, Oz
February 13, 2013 10:50pm

I made a reasonable request for you to elaborate on where you had criticized me for my supposed lack of differentiation between nuclear fission/fusion devices, on the grounds that I am always ready to take responsibility for my posts, and correct them if found to be plain wrong, not to be scrambling around Skeptoid trying to find the sources of your own statements.

You apparently made the statement, not me.

Where was it ?

I don't contact anywhere else on the Internet to complain about your posts or behaviour.

It stays here. I can't say the same about you.

Macky, Auckland
February 15, 2013 9:58pm

I say let's GO FOR IT! Let's gather-up a good chunk of the world's nuclear fuel, refine it, enclose it in a DIAMOND casing so that it doesn't destruct until it reaches the CORE ... then it's "flying chickens in the barnyard" to quote George C. Scott from "Dr. Strangelove"!!!

Let life develop on Europa unmolested too - just like in "2010". The remainder of the world's nuke fuel could of course be saved for rockets and asteroid defense instead of potentially killing fellow human beings.

Bernard Continelli, East Greenbush, NY/USA
February 18, 2013 10:26pm

"Chris, there's nothing wrong with reading Arthur C. Clarke. Remember Martian chronicles by Ray Bradbury? It was great in its day."
Nothing's wrong with reading Arthur C. Clarke novels. What's wrong is believing them to be some sort of Gospel.

Government Goodies, Secret Government Lab
March 18, 2013 9:39am

Thanx Goodies.. I'll check on my two favorite fictions.. the bible and anything written by Clive Barker..Both unbelievable fantasy and both foundational woo and both far better constructions than the juvenile Harry Potter and the now accepted woo.

Mind you, my kids have been reading clive barker for many years since I removed the "adult horror" tag from the family library of great fiction and "despised text books"..

You know, they even read "journal literature"... gasp....

On fusion and fission .. one only needs to check on the "wiki" reference to see the difference on the quoted yields..

Of course, we can all calculate yields by reading the internet..Mind you, this did come from a "I hate scientists" rant in the reasonably early "I hate the LHC" brain explosion that (like etherics) appears to be a logical sewer pipe of view.

Go on macky and Goodies..stop being so damn reasonable from time to time..I cant figure you out! You sound as smart as Tom from Kent on many occasions....

Mud, Sin City
May 2, 2013 8:58am

Yes Mud, but.....
"Clearly Macky revised his view after my criticism of his lack of differentiation between fusion/fission devices elsewhere."

Where was this ? It's your statement not mine.
I've known the difference between fusion and fission for a long time, Mud.
One is spelt with a u and one s, and the other with i and 2 s's.

And I don't hate eggheads. I've told you that at least once before.
Nor do I hate the LHC. One day if it is still in existence, they will clear all the silly equipment out, and it will make a fine underground training track for aspiring long distance runners from Australia.

Macky, Auckland
May 18, 2013 6:44pm

I always assumed the monoliths were introducing mass from elsewhere to achieve ignition. The end of the first book implied they were a "gate " of some description. Although with todays knowledge maybe they were converting dark energy into matter.

peter.lindsay, Newcastle
August 27, 2013 9:33pm

Arthur C Clarke. I cannot fault people for believing that one of his many nightmarish sci-fi scenarios could become a reality as the man was an absolute master. And one of his excellent novels, Rendezvous With Rama,features a spine-chilling plot in which nothing actually happens, and concludes with this ominous line ;"...the Ramayans always do things in threes..."

Sbo, Kzn Midlands South Africa
November 9, 2013 6:48am

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