Geek Trivia: Name-drop it like it's hot

What is the official term for a volcanic eruption that emits enough force in a specific manner to successfully launch an object into space -- a term that is inspired by science fiction?

For all the allure and entertainment promised by the city of Las Vegas, NV, no jackpot on Earth should have been valuable enough to convince someone to drive into Sin City from the northwest through a certain stretch of Nye County during the summer of 1957. From May 28 to October 7 of that year, the U.S. military carried out Operation Plumbob in that area--the longest and most destructive series of nuclear test detonations ever conducted within the continental United States.

Now known as the Nevada Test Site (formerly the Nevada Proving Ground), Plumbob's test area was home to 29 nuclear explosions of various design and placement. Some explosions occurred atop man-made towers a la the original Trinity Test; others happened inside deep shafts or tunnels; some were suspended from high-altitude balloons; and some were simply placed on the ground. Plumbob's purpose was not just to gather data for the design of future nuclear weapons, but also to assess the radiological, seismic, and psychological fallout of nuclear detonations on nearby areas and populations. Some of the most notorious and controversial nuclear tests ever conducted were attached to Plumbob's operational portfolio.

For example, on September 19, 1957, the Rainier test included the first fully contained underground nuclear blast, wherein no fallout was ever vented to the atmosphere. It set the standard for underground nuclear testing. On July 26, 1957, the Pascal-A test let loose a nuclear weapon in an uncapped shaft and allowed the military to gauge countermeasures for an unplanned nuclear accident. Think of it as Broken Arrow insurance (or, more accurately, Pinnacle - NUCFLASH insurance). Still, the Pascal-B test may be the most infamous in nuclear technology circles, if only for Plumbob's most often repeated urban legend.

High-speed photographs taken of the Pascal-B shaft detonation on August 27, 1957 show a faint blur of a manhole cover blown out of the ground at incredible speed. Some calculations suggest the cover was thrown off at six times Earth's escape velocity, though few believe the object actually managed to achieve orbital insertion. Nonetheless, the Pascal-B manhole cover is sometimes jokingly referred to as the world's first nuclear-powered spacecraft.

Joking aside, the prospect of an unchanneled earthbound explosion successfully launching an object into space is a subject of great debate. While an unfocused manmade explosion is unlikely to present the necessary force to thrust any significant mass into orbit, geologic events -- such as volcanoes -- are another matter. The prospect of volcanic spacelaunches has been so seriously considered that it has an official term -- one inspired by science fiction.


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