Got some radioactive, spent nuclear fuel laying around? Or maybe there’s a super-powerful villainous contraption threatening the planet that you’d prefer to dispose of? “Just throw it into the sun!” That phrase has long been the seemingly easy answer to tricky comic book plots and very serious concerns about what to do with nuclear waste. While this solution may be an easy one for the omnipotent Superman, it’s much more difficult for us mere mortals.
On the surface of things, chucking garbage, nuclear waste, and any other objects we want to be permanently rid of into the super-heated sphere of plasma at the center of our solar system sounds easy enough; I mean, the sun’s gravity alone holds all the other planets in its thrall, right? As MinutePhysics explains in a fantastic new video, it turns out that it’s not that easy after all.
Keeping in mind that loading a rocket with deadly radioactive material with the aim of launching it from Earth probably isn’t the best idea due to risks of it exploding and acting as a giant dirty bomb, MinutePhysics’ Henry Reich walks us through the math complicating the attempt. If we/the Earth were not orbiting the Sun – which would lead to a very bad month for us – it would be pretty easy to chuck stuff into it. However, we are orbiting at about 30km/s, so to get ourselves to a complete standstill, we’d have to accelerate in the opposite direction at that same rate. To put that into perspective, rockets only need to be traveling 11km/s faster than the Earth to escape from the entire solar system.
Yes, it’s easier to get out of the solar system completely and head toward other stars than it is to smash into our own. It’s actually more efficient to launch into the outer solar system first in order accelerate in the opposite direction from a slower speed, allowing you to stop your orbital momentum and fall directly towards the sun. This is more or less what NASA’s “Solar Probe Plus” plans to do during its six-year approach to the sun, starting in 2018. And to think that “Smash Mouth” had the flight duration right this whole time…
If this sort of thing fires up your curiosity, be sure to check out the links under the video for a lot more reference material. Do you have anything you’d like to throw into the sun? Let us know in the comments below!