How big a boom to blot out a body?
May 10, 2014 5:27 PM   Subscribe

Just how large of an explosion would be necessary to eliminate any obvious evidence of a human corpse?

(For a story.) To be specific, if the first fuel stage of an ICBM (but not its warhead) were to accidentally explode within the missile silo, would the resulting explosion be hot enough to obliterate any evidence of a person's body (someone who happened to be within the blast radius during the accident?) I don't mean on a microscopic level-- just enough that people might not recognize the remains as necessarily being human.

Thanks for your help!
posted by egeanin to Science & Nature (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Certainly. There's a reason flammables aren't allowed in road tunnels - if they go, they incinerate everything in the tunnel. The silo is a vertical tunnel.
posted by notsnot at 5:32 PM on May 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, if the meany thousands of pounds of propellant and oxidizer on an ICBM were to catch fire inside the silo, anyone in the silo with the missile would be toast as well, and there would be nothing left of anyone in the silo with the missile either. (The folks in the control room/living quarters would probably be ok, since it is separated from the silo itself, since a small percentage of missiles explode on launch anyway.)
posted by rockindata at 5:42 PM on May 10, 2014

Teeth are the problem. With just an explosion, teeth may get scattered but they'll likely survive.

Explosion plus fire is much better for this purpose.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:05 PM on May 10, 2014

Might also consider that the explosion could breach the warhead; if the warhead carries a nuclear payload, that might spread enough radioactive contamination to keep people away from the crime scene for an extended period of time.
posted by Aleyn at 8:42 PM on May 10, 2014

... if the many thousands of pounds of propellant and oxidizer on an ICBM ...

For whatever it's worth, we haven't had a liquid fuel ICBM since the Titan missiles in the 1960's. They were replaced by Minuteman, which was solid fuel, and all American ICBM's since then have been solid fuel. (Liquid fuel was too dangerous; several American silos were destroyed by accidents during that period, which is why they decided to go with solid fuel.)

Solid fuel burns ferociously, but it doesn't explode.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:47 PM on May 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, once solid fuel starts to go, it goes. You can't shut it off. IANYRS*

*I am not your rocket scientist
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:07 AM on May 11, 2014

The recently published Command and Control discusses the layout of some Cold War and more modern ICBM silos in the conrtext of 'accidents'. While not trying to dispose of bodies, I still found it quite fascinating. fwiw.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:52 AM on May 11, 2014

Perhaps cremation might give some pointers:

The box containing the body is placed in the retort and incinerated at a temperature of 760 to 1150 °C (1400 to 2100 °F). During the cremation process, the greater portion of the body (especially the organs and other soft tissues) is vaporized and oxidized by the intense heat; gases released are discharged through the exhaust system. The process usually takes 90 minutes to two hours, with larger bodies taking longer time.


Contrary to popular belief, the cremated remains are not ashes in the usual sense. After the incineration is completed, the dry bone fragments are swept out of the retort and pulverised by a machine called a Cremulator — essentially a high-capacity, high-speed blender — to process them into "ashes" or "cremated remains", although pulverisation may also be performed by hand.

posted by jim in austin at 5:35 PM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

You don't state that it's an American silo. Other people in the world do still use liquid fuel.

It's interesting. Liquid fuel rockets are very complicated, but they're easier to build than solid fuel. The problem with solid fuel is that your quality control has to be superb. Any bubbles or cavities in the fuel while it's cast will cause uneven burning, which could blow out the side of the rocket. The Americans learned a long time ago how to do that, but the Russians had a lot of trouble with it. (Russian manufacturing is notoriously irregular in quality.)

The American Atlas missiles used RP-1 (i.e kerosene) and liquid oxygen. But storing liquid oxygen for long periods is very difficult, and vented oxygen is a fire hazard.

The Titan missile used hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide. That combination is "hypergolic", which means that if the two come into contact they spontaneously combust. Furthermore, both can be stored at room temperature. But they're nasty, nasty chemicals, and very unforgiving.

I think that Russia finally figured out how to make solid fuel reliably. But it wouldn't surprise me if China is still using liquid fuel, and I'm sure that North Korea is. (On the other hand, NK doesn't have silos.)

For your purposes, anyway, a burning solid fuel rocket would do a better job of destroying a corpse than an explosion of a liquid fuel rocket. No crematorium has ever approached the ferocity of the flame of a solid rocket.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:42 PM on May 11, 2014

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