As if we didn't already have enough to worry about, a pair of scientists are warning that it's theoretically possible to deliberately detonate the Sun. Called an "artificial supernova," this event could represent a new existential risk to the human species. Or maybe, these guys don't know what the hell they're talking about.
Before I get into the details of the study, it's worth noting that the paper was published in the open access journal, Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP). Though the China-based site claims to conduct a "rigorous peer review" of research papers, it is considered a "predatory" open access publisher. It does attract quality articles from time to time, but it mostly serves as a vanity press.
With that hefty grain of salt administered, here's what the paper had to say.
According to Alexander Bolonkin and Joseph Friedlander, it may be possible to produce "self-supporting detonating thermonuclear reactions that spread to the full solar volume" — a similar process to the triggering mechanisms in a thermonuclear bomb.
"Conditions within the bomb can be optimized in a small area to initiate ignition, then spread to a larger area, allowing [for the production of] a hydrogen bomb of any power," write the authors in the study. "In the case of the Sun certain targeting practices may greatly increase the chances of an artificial explosion of the Sun. This explosion would annihilate the Earth and the Solar System, as we know them today."
Our Sun contains about 74% hydrogen by weight. As the sun blasts away, the isotope hydrogen-1 (99.985% of hydrogen in nature) gets consumed as a fuel for fusion thermonuclear reactions. This reaction occurs slowly within the Sun on account of its relatively low temperature. But if we could create a higher temperature and density in a limited region of the solar interior, we could conceivably create the thermonuclear cascade that Bolonkin and Friedlander speculate about — the so-called A-B criterion for solar detonation.
I gotta say, this seems freakin' hard to believe. And indeed, as a commenter at NextBigFuture points out:
There isn't a statistical chance that a self-sustaining reaction could be started in the sun, which hasn't already happened trillions of times already! Simply, the energies involved with the largest X-class flares (and from extrapolation far larger ones than we've yet seen in 50 years of quantitative instrumentation) dwarf any conceivably deliverable thermonuclear weapon that would be able to penetrate the sun's chromosphere and shed enough of its "ablative shield" in such a way as to couple efficiently enough to the surrounding hydrogen, deuterium and helium to cause additional thermonuclear detonation of the coupled local material.
Indeed, it seems ludicrous to think that we could kindle such an effect on an already insanely volatile — and massive — stellar object.
Our incredulity aside, the authors warn that they should be taken seriously. From the paper's abstract:
Why even contemplate such a horrible scenario? It is necessary because as thermonuclear and space technology spreads to even the least powerful nations in the centuries ahead, a dying dictator having thermonuclear missile weapons can proce [sic] (with some considerable mobilization of his military/industrial complex)—an artificial explosion of the Sun and take into his grave the whole of humanity. It might take tens of thousands of people to make and launch the hardware, but only a very few need know the final targeting data of what might be otherwise a weapon purely thought of (within the dictator’s defense industry) as being built for peaceful, deterrent use. Those concerned about Man’s future must know about this possibility and create some protective system—or ascertain on theoretical grounds that it is entirely impossie. [sic] Humanity has fears, justified to greater or lesser degrees, about asteroids, warming of Earthly climate, extinctions, etc. which have very small probability. But all these would leave survivors—nobody thinks that the terrible annihilation of the Solar System would leave a single person alive. That explosion appears possible at the present time.
Read the entire study here.
[H/t Michael Anissimov; image: NASA]