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What Was Project Pluto?

Project Pluto was a Cold War-era initiative to develop a nuclear-powered ramjet missile, known as SLAM, capable of delivering thermonuclear warheads with devastating effect. This top-secret program aimed to create an unstoppable weapon, but it was ultimately abandoned due to its potential for catastrophic collateral damage. How might such a weapon have changed the course of history? Continue with us to uncover the implications.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Project Pluto was a SLAM, or Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile, an audacious Cold War project designed to make a nuclear-powered under-the-radar ballistic missile. The research was conducted by scientists from the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, predecessor of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, while testing took place at the Nevada Test Site, where the majority of nuclear tests during the era took place. The project ran from 1957 to 1964. It was canceled when improvements in radar technology made its low-flying qualities obsolete, and intercontinental ballistic missile technology turned out to be easier to develop than expected.

Project Pluto's signature component was a 513 megawatt unshielded nuclear reactor which heated air sucked in from the front of the missile, and fired it out the back. This arrangement is called a ramjet, or an air-breathing missile. The Pluto missile was designed to travel Mach 3 at treetop level. Its nuclear reactor would have emitted lethal radiation across a large radius. It was designed to be a missile-bomber, dropping multiple nuclear warheads as it traveled along its path of destruction. We should all be thankful that Project Pluto was never completed.

SLAM missiles would have dropped multiple nuclear weapons during an attack.
SLAM missiles would have dropped multiple nuclear weapons during an attack.

Project Pluto, if the device were actually built, probably would have been the craft experiencing the most in-flight stress of any airframe outside of spacecraft or ballistic missiles reentering from above the atmosphere. The reactor operated at 2,500°F (1,600 °C), temperatures at which conventional materials would melt within minutes. Special ceramics were used for the reactor components instead. Due to the efficiency of its nuclear engine, the Project Pluto missile could have stayed in the air for months if need be, circling the Pacific until it was ordered to strike a target. The missile may have had the highest power density of any piece of military hardware at the time, packing half a gigawatt of power into a package the size of a railway car.

Many submarines used by the Navy are designed to fire intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Many submarines used by the Navy are designed to fire intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Though Project Pluto was a military pursuit, it underscores the power of nuclear propulsion for aeronautical or astronautical applications in general. Relative to using conventional chemicals to power planes or rockets, there is just no comparison. Nuclear power provides superior power for fractions of a cent on the dollar when compared to chemical combustion. If the safety challenges surrounding nuclear reactors can be solved, then their use could open up the skies - and space - for the long-term future.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...

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    • SLAM missiles would have dropped multiple nuclear weapons during an attack.
      By: The Official CTBTO Photostream
      SLAM missiles would have dropped multiple nuclear weapons during an attack.
    • Many submarines used by the Navy are designed to fire intercontinental ballistic missiles.
      Many submarines used by the Navy are designed to fire intercontinental ballistic missiles.
    • Project Pluto was conducted by scientists from the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, which was a predecessor of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
      Project Pluto was conducted by scientists from the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, which was a predecessor of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.