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Soviet air defense officer who saved the world dies at age 77

Enlarge / Former Soviet Colonel Stanislav Petrov sits at home on March 19, 2004 in Moscow. Petrov was in charge of Soviet nuclear early warning systems on the night of September 26, 1983, and decided not to retaliate when a false "missile attack" signal appeared to show a US nuclear launch. He is feted by nuclear activists as the man who "saved the world" by determining that the Soviet system had been spoofed by a reflection off the Earth. (credit: Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

Former Soviet Air Defense Colonel Stanislav Petrov, the man known for preventing an accidental nuclear launch by the Soviet Union at the height of Cold War tensions, has passed away. Karl Schumacher, a German political activist who first met Petrov in 1998 and helped him visit Germany a year later, published news of Petrov's death after learning from Petrov's son that he had died in May. Petrov was 77.

Petrov's story has since been recounted several times by historians, including briefly in William Taubman's recent biography of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Gorbachev: His Life and Times. Ars also wrote about Petrov in our 2015 feature on Exercise Able Archer. On the night of September 26, 1983, Petrov was watch officer in charge of the Soviet Union's recently completed US-KS nuclear launch warning satellite network, known as "Oko" (Russian for "eye"). To provide instant warning of an American nuclear attack, the system was supposed to catch the flare of launching missiles as they rose.

That night, just past midnight, the Oko system signaled that a single US missile had been launched. "When I first saw the alert message, I got up from my chair," Petrov told RT in a 2010 interview. "All my subordinates were confused, so I started shouting orders at them to avoid panic. I knew my decision would have a lot of consequences."

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Diving into the unthinkable cold truths of a nuclear war

Enlarge / Nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll in the 1940s. That's a scene some of us would rather not revisit in the near future. (credit: James Vaughan)

Last Thursday, President-elect Donald Trump issued a few statements (guess where) about America's military, with this statement as a kicker: "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its sense regarding nukes." Though much remains to be seen about how Trump's tweets will actually translate into policy, it seems likely that nuclear war will be back on the table. Are we going to roll back decades of policy and technology to return to the Atomic Age?

Despite Trump's assertion, the world has come to its senses about nukes (and not just in Hollywood). Political consensus over issues like denuclearization has been fairly stable since the 1980s, thanks in part to scientific researchers showing what would happen to a world ravaged by nuclear bombs. One such study was The Medical Implications of Nuclear War, published by Fred Solomon and Robert Q. Marston in 1986. This rigorous and grim estimate of nuclear war's effects on our planet is written in a bleak manner for good reason: to scare us straight.

"Our national security for the past 40 years has been based on the perception that nuclear war would be unhealthy," the study begins. "Understanding what the health consequences of a nuclear war would be, as best we can know them, is very important for informed opinions and actions by citizens and by government."

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After latest rocket test, North Korea claims it can lob nukes at the US

A test firing of a rocket engine North Korea claims will power an ICBM, in a state media photo.

On Saturday, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency reported that the North Korean government had conducted a ground test of a new rocket engine intended to power the first stage of an intercontinental ballistic missile. The test, which took place at Sohae Space Center in North Phyongan Province near the Chinese border, was hailed as a success.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un boasted that the engine would make it possible to launch nuclear strikes against the US. "Now the DPRK can tip new type inter-continental ballistic rockets with more powerful nuclear warheads and keep any cesspool of evils in the earth including the US mainland within our striking range and reduce them to ashes,” Kim was quoted as saying, according to North Korea watchdog site NK News.

Photos of the test published by KCNA don't reveal whether it was a liquid or solid-fuel rocket engine being tested. Late in March, North Korea performed a ground test of a solid-fuel rocket that may have been for an upper stage of the KN-08, also known as the Hwasong-13 (and previously referred to as the No-dong-C)—a road-mobile ICBM that North Korea has been reportedly developing since at least 2011. And on March 9, North Korea's government announced that it had successfully completed the "standardized" design for a miniaturized nuclear weapon to be carried by ballistic missiles.

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